Essay accompanying the exhibition No Island is a Man, DeVos Art Museum, Michigan, 2012
Just as John Donne reported his discovery – that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself’, but ‘a piece of the continent, a part of the main’ – so Thoreau could announce that “the smallest stream is a Mediterranean sea”.1
In the particular, macro potential is revealed. Comprising just 90 acres of undeveloped land surrounded by 31,700 square miles of water in Lake Superior, Rabbit Island is a utopian attempt to colonize our imaginations. In establishing this project the artist Andrew Ranville and his collaborator Rob Gorski stake their claim to an ancient Western cultural tradition – one that invokes the island topos
to negotiate relationships between the real and the imaginary, utopia and dystopia, selfhood and otherness, centre and periphery. In so doing, the Rabbit Island residency also deploys the trope of the shipwrecked sailor, separated from his contemporaries, who must make the world anew. How the world is (re)made – which elements are to be carried over from the past and which are to be discarded – constitutes the moral or political import of productive isolation.
As territories separated from other lands by water, islands are easily mythologized as Edens, Arcadias or places of exceptional danger. They are, paradoxically, both safe havens and sites of upheaval.2
The tension – and interest – generated by island tales sometimes centers on the distinction between protagonists having been cast away
, by accident or banishment, or having cast something aside
. Some characters oscillate between these two states and settle on a reverse position; those who find themselves lost may begin to relish their situation, others who have initially chosen isolation and unfamiliarity can find themselves pining for home and renouncing their previous rejections. The key dramatic question is whether to change or stay the same, and resulting answers partake of the ancient quest genre when they are reported upon the traveler’s return to their place of origin, or to subsequent generations who have benefited from a contrary decision not to leave – to put down roots in a new land.
The two great shipwreck stories of the 18th
century, Robinson Crusoe
and Gulliver’s Travels
, stage island worlds as a challenge to the respective castaways’ epistemological systems.3
In the latter novel this is a source of comic satire and discovery, conversely, Crusoe sets about re-asserting the efficacy of his established outlook in the face of alien alternatives. According to Linda Colley, Defoe’s book presents a parable of empire ‘through the conquest of a paradise island and its sole inhabitant by superior British individualism and ingenuity’.4
In contrast, Swift’s Gulliver finds his national conceits ‘transformed by exposure to a range of island peoples’.5
On Rabbit Island there are no Lilliputians, Brobdingnagsas or Houyhnhnms to encounter, let alone any remnants of the Chippewa who once fished Lake Superior, so post-colonial negotiations with other people do not seem to be the most obvious function of the project. Yet, in their comments on Rabbit Island’s difference or particularity Ranville and Gorski keenly emphasize its lack of geographical subdivision. By highlighting this lack of man made boundaries life in the rest of the United States is thrown into relief: This is a continental nation that has been conceived according to ‘imaginary lines in the soil’ – arbitrary enclosures. According to George Simmel, such limits are “not a spatial fact with sociological consequences but a sociological fact that forms itself spatially”.6
The American ship of state has so often created difference where there was once identity, and homogeneity where difference previously reigned. As in other continental nations, whole races have been invented with the stroke of a cartographers pen and first peoples subsumed – to name but a few outcomes. But this is by no means a unique issue; complications attached to continental boundary lines are cause for so much international strife in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. On a somewhat smaller scale, subdivision allows some people to inhabit islands of security and satiety – green zones, shopping malls, mansions and democracies – while others are all at sea on street corners and in refugee camps. The issue of access and exclusion grows ever more urgent under globalized economic conditions, as does the ecological impact of reducing the complex distribution of naturally occurring life to islands of relative orderliness and simplicity. For every well-manicured suburban lawn there is a corresponding degree of lugubrious sprawl, testament to a ‘future of humdrum practicality’.7
As a teenage skateboarder Ranville was attuned to the (sub)urban regime of spatial enclosures, their official functions and enforcement. As a young artist his Trespassing
series of photographs documented his rejection of this system. The fruit of a nighttime flâneurie – climbing onto rooftops, sneaking over the connecting walls and levels of downtown buildings – they recorded “arresting interactions” between “temperatures of light and architecture”. Later, in the spirit of the first Europeans to settle the North American continent, he began to toy with the idea of creating a ‘new world’. Future Island
(2009) was a takeaway installation/sculpture that consisted of a sapling housed in a planter-box, to which a boat anchor was attached. The tree itself was of a variety that thrives in a flooded environment. The potential buyer of the work was given instructions to pitch it into a canal or similarly unnatural body of water. The fast-growing plant would then absorb nutrients through its specially designed box and, aided by the anchor, put down roots. If left alone for long enough it would grow into an island. The birth of a new land would be the result of ‘guerrilla gardening’, inspired – perhaps – by an activist practice that has emerged in recent anti-globalization protests, wherein the manicured grass of public squares is reclaimed/planted with vegetables. The implicit challenge of Future Island
was to colonize existing spatial determinations with a new reality.
‘We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality’, wrote Thoreau in Walden
This remark by one of the heroes of American letters addresses the danger of realism, understood as conventional definitions of human success. The vain reality is the faltering ship itself – the wrack of hubris – rather than the shores, inlets and islands of knowledge that one must necessarily explore when the craft is abandoned. ‘One generation’, he intones, must forsake ‘the enterprises of another like stranded vessels’.9
The aged structures, creaking with presumption, are no longer fit for purpose. Having been driven aground in the manner of so many boats otherwise useless in a storm they lurch in the changing breakers – false sanctuaries that need casting off in order to choose life afresh.10
Ranville and Gorski’s project is both the literal fulfillment of this simile and an attempt to test its power in our contemporary age. Leaving the mainland behind for a period of intellectual and creative trial by nature, Rabbit Island residents must achieve their goals through humble means. Most importantly, their goals must shift – be recalibrated – by the context specificity of their new home. With only the most essential tools from the old world available, artists must attempt to tease meanings and take suggestions from the landscape, to work with it rather than impose their own will fait accompli
. Ranville’s The Amphitheater
is a signal example of this economical methodology – the soil clad roots of a large naturally felled tree repurposed, through the simple placement of log benches, as a mise en scène
for future spectacles. With this work the artist stakes out the residency program’s concern with collapsing the distinction between practicality and performativity, nature and artifice.
In attempting to choose art – through a new kind of life, in a new land – afresh the Rabbit Island project is in sympathy with Walden
’s nods to the pioneer narrative of discovery. Thoreau’s advice to ‘be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought’ encapsulates this imaginary. But the question remains – does this approach merely amount to a retreat from the world? Can isolation have a wider social implication?
It is sometimes pointed out that Thoreau’s house was not so far from the nearest town, and that his frequent visits to the latter render his rhetoric of self-sufficiency hypocritical. But, as W. Barksdale Maynard has convincingly argued, Walden
must be viewed as a contribution to and comment upon the contemporaneous literature of ‘villa-retirement’ and new architectural thought that emerged in the mid 19th
His was a vision of the good life as peripheral but not too distant from the urban fabric – a pioneering contribution to the concept of suburban living. The structure in which he lived was not a log cabin but a ‘house’. The infamous Michigan native Theodore Kaczynski, who borrowed from Thoreau’s example when constructing his notorious hermitage and bomb-making workshop, was similarly in contact with the outside world. As Mark Wigley said of him, far from being disconnected the terrorist ‘ruthlessly exploited the ever-present intimate ties between isolated cell and dense urbanization’.12
Though he refused to attach himself to the telephone, water or electricity lines that were only a few miles away, he kept his mail box on the nearby road – utilizing the mail network to ‘distribute his terror’ and get his neo-luddite manifesto published in national newspapers.13
Retreats, the critic continues, are
already part of the technological network, part of the pattern they seem to have escaped. Thoreau was never really isolated. On the contrary, his withdrawal was a very public act described in a best-selling book. The ideology of his cabin was actually constructed in the urban milieu. The settlement always includes within itself what it nominates as its other. “Isolated” is an urban concept. It is a product of the city. To leave the map behind is a uniquely urban fantasy. It is those at the center of the pattern who talk the most about escaping it. But their escapes are usually just extensions of the pattern, demonstrations that the city knows no limit’.14
Indeed, today it is practically impossible for people to live on an island separated from the influence of other territories. As the network philosophers Thacker and Galloway have said –
‘[i]nside the dense web of distributed networks, it would appear that everything is everywhere
– [there is] little room between the poles of the global and the local. Biological viruses are transferred via airlines between Guandong Province and Toronto in a manner of hours, and computer viruses are transferred via data lines from Seattle to Saigon in a manner of seconds’.15
Rabbit Island was purchased by Gorski after seeing an advertisement on an internet classifieds website. In the same networked manner, monies for the residency program were generated through an digital crowdfunding platform. The mundane nature of Gorski’s discovery of the Rabbit Island arcadia, online, through a website that is also used to sell old clothing and bicycles, is a testament to the stupendous realms of possibility that sometimes pass unnoticed within our everyday landscape.
The degree to which the Rabbit Island project takes place in a geographically isolated environment is offset and activated by the distribution of the project’s outcomes online and through an exhibition at the DeVos Art Museum. The island is a studio site enabling creative meditation and production on the potential of sustainability. Without the exhibition and other documentation it might just be an puritanical retreat. Its Adirondack shelter, containing a kitchen, library and fully stocked tool shed formally echoes the austere shaker-like construction of Kaczynski’s cabin, suggesting a similar lesson to the one Thoreau hoped to impart with his boast that his own house cost only 28 dollars to construct – namely, that riches – spiritual or otherwise – can be discovered in a context of worldly frugality.16
Ranville’s return to Northern Michigan University with the fruits of his labor also parallels his previous work Seven Summits
, completed for the 4th
Marrakech Biennale in 2012, in which the artist scaled the seven tallest peaks in the Western High Atlas range and extracted a stone from each summit before transporting them to Marrakech to be displayed in a temporary installation – bringing the mountain, so to speak, to Mohammed.17
The function of the Rabbit Island retreat touches wider territories than the immediate geographical setting.
At a time when Western societies operate according to the mechanism of information capitalism, when American agriculture and industry must be subsidized by the government in order to successfully compete in a global market, when shifting ciphers on computer screens, creating memes, shuffling and deploying preexisting symbols are the tasks most familiar to young people, the creation of islands of material production becomes a priority. Our generation must learn greater economic self-sufficiency, satisfaction in work and the ecological benefits that accrue to such worldly reorganization. It must also develop platforms to report successful strategies to this effect. We need experiments and propagandists. The Rabbit Island project is a utopian outpost of practical desire. As its temporary inhabitants come and go this vision will expand and deepen, and reach shores beyond Lake Superior.
1. Others have pointed to Emerson's corresponding statement of 1862: “To [Thoreau] there was no such thing as size. The pond was a small ocean; the Atlantic, a large Walden Pond”. See Haskell S. Springer, ‘The Nautical Walden’, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 84-97
2. Stephanos Stephanides & Susan Bassnett, ‘Islands, Literature and Cultural Translatability’, Transtext(e)s, p.7
4. Linda Colley, Captives, 2002, cited in Alex Law, ‘Of Navies and Navels: Britain as a Mental IslandAuthor(s)’, Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 87, No. 4, 2005, pp. 267-277.
7. Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, X, 19XX, p.13,15.
8. Haskell S. Springer, ‘The Nautical Walden’, p.91.
11. W. Barksdale Maynard, ‘Thoreau’s House at Waldern, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 303-325.
12. Mark Wigley, ‘Cabin Fever’, Perspecta, Vol. 30, 1999, p.124.
15. Alexander Galloway & Eugene Thacker, The Exploit, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007, p.4.
16. ‘Visiting the squalid and leaky rural home of the “shiftless” Irishman John Field, he proselytize[d] with all the zeal of an author of a villa book: “I tried to help him with my experience, telling him ... that I lived in a tight light and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to; and how, if he chose, he might in a month or two build himself a palace of his own”. See W. Barksdale Maynard, ‘Thoreau’s House at Waldern, The Art Bulletin, p.308.
17. at the end of the exhibition the artists hiked back up the mountains and returned each piece of stone to its original location.