Riparian City as Performative Interface

In her article “Performative Materiality and Theoretical Approaches to Interface,” Johanna Drucker writes: “The critical design of interpretive interface means that we understand the task not just as an arrangement of things or a structure for the organization of behaviors and actions, but as a mobilization of a critical network that exposes, calls to attention, its made-ness – and by extenstion, the constructed-ness of knowledge, its interpretative dimensions.”  In some ways, Ryan Griffis’ website for his project Riparian City functions as this type of critical interface, exposing the constructed nature of not only itself, but also the typical ways in which we categorize and create the natural world and its resources.

Drucker emphasizes a focus on the performative qualities of interface design and interrogation because, she states, “knowledge creates the object of its discourses, it does not ‘discover’ them.”  While this type of criticism of knowledge is certainly not new (Foucault, Mitchell, etc.) interpretations of the creation of knowledge from such a critical standpoint are often lacking when it comes to discourses about the natural world, natural history, and the hard sciences in general.  These are also spaces of knowledge that mix with discourses from the digital humanities infrequently.  Facts from nature are often only read as data sets, directly linked with truth claims.

By using a website as a part of his physical performance, Ryan shifts and puts into question our understanding of the materiality of the Doan Watershed.  He begins by directly questioning the accepted history of the area with statements such as: “The rattlesnakes, wolves, chestnut trees, salamanders and other riparian city (800x426)once thriving human and non-human inhabitants surely knew it by other names long before Nathaniel Doan arrived here in the late 18th century.”  This idea of fluid boundaries and naming is pushed even further, however, with the mapping project that defines the digital existence of the Doan Watershed.

While the Doan Watershed no doubt exists in the material world, its representation digitally, as both a community map, falsified history, and fictitious political entity asks us to begin to think about physical space in much more abstract ways while also addressing the pure materiality of the water and land and the way that those objects (and places) interact with the animals and humans that encounter them.

The Riparian City interactive map is, in this respects, a critical, performative interface, demonstrating the ways in which “material forms [the map itself, the land, the water, etc.] are only the site of potential for meaning production, not for transfer.” (Drucker) The map, as it is built up by users who define the space and place of the Doan Watershed in limitless ways, are not creating a set of definitive facts, rather they are compiling a set of experiences, memories, or interpretations. In this way, the map, by revealing itself as part of a fanciful city and travel office, creates itself as a real object that allows user to begin to interrogate how we define fact, reality, and history.

The Temporary Travel Office & Riparian City

For this review, I thought first of the digital, performance, public, etc. projects made by UIUC professor of new media, Ryan Griffis. Ryan uses websites coupled with mini-publications, prints, and other ephemera, as well as performance to question the ways that we define place and interact with the natural world.

When I first started thinking about reviewing Ryan Griffis’ Temporary Travel Office for this assignment, I was hesitant, because, as an artist, I wondered if Ryan’s work would be considered ‘scholarly’ enough for it.  But then I began thinking that most artworks are in fact extra-textual scholarly projects.  Especially in new media, art projects become sites to interrogate intellectual ideas in a more than textual way, often combining text, digital objects, actual objects, performance and events.

Ryan’s work with the Temporary Travel Office is this kind of project, combining art with ecology, environmentalism, critical geography, archival work, and performance.  The project exists as a website, where downloads are available, but also at times as performance or individual ephemeral objects.  The Temporary Travel Office is a fictitious travel agency that aids the public by providing materials and tours to often overlooked areas to disrupt the way we define space and how move around in the physical world.  Parking lots, forgotten parks, and under privileged neighborhoods become the sites of tourism in Ryan’s imagined travel agency.

While the Temporary Travel Office is involved with multiple projects, publications and tours, one that is especially interesting is the again fictitious Riparian City.  Founded in 15,000 BCE, Riparian City is the site of the Doan Watershed in Cleveland.  On the Riparian City Website the public can enter information into a map as a way to map locations or even memories to re-imagine the ways that this neighborhood is defined.

riparian city (800x426)

Riparian City questions not only who defines geographies, but also what.  By creating a Temporary Travel Office in a made up city, Ryan’s work is able to give agency to the space itself, attempting to demonstrate the multitude of forces that shape a sense of place, many that are outside of human control.  And, while projects like this originated with performance pieces composed of a physical embassy, with national flags and passports for Riparian citizens, the remnants still exist online, with images of the imagined city and the editable map that citizens who experience a place defined by local space, people, fauna, resources, and climate can still attempt to picture their city, at least digitally.