Atmospheric Contention: Spatial Contradiction and Landscapes of the Past Present

Authors: Austin Cummings*, Portland State University, Steve Marotta , Portland State University
Topics: Cultural Geography, Landscape, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Atmospheres, Affect, Public Art
Session Type: Paper


Amongst the changing urban landscape of North Williams Avenue in Portland, OR, a range of urban surfaces evoke an affective atmosphere (Anderson, 2009). Once the heart of Portland’s Black community, Williams Avenue was razed for urban renewal in the mid 1950s-1960s. Throughout the next decades, the community and neighborhood experienced the deleterious effects of redlining, housing speculation, and disinvestment. Williams is now a site of contestations over racialized gentrification: stretches of the Avenue are now canyons of “vibrant” commercial space and mid-rise apartments; a highly disputed bike lane has been imposed on the landscape; and the racial makeup is dramatically shifting. In the summer of 2017, the forgotten racial history of Williams became memorialized through a public art installation that weaves between the scars of so-called progress. This installation organizes the affective experience of Williams’ dynamic surfaces: the new performances and representations of a supposedly renewed present share a surface with -- and are molded from -- a ransacked past. Williams’ surfaces mediate temporally and spatially overlapping atmospheres: of spatial theft, of consumption, of ongoing crisis. In this paper, we explore what this memorialization does. What does this installation demand from its onlookers (Mitchell, 2005), and what are the affects of the spatial contradictions it is embedded within? We investigate how the past present (DuBois, 1903) becomes recorded in urban surfaces along Williams Avenue. Fusing Deleuze & Guattari (1977) and Lefebvre (1991), we argue that this art installation opens a window to understanding the “production of the production of space.”

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