Or, Space Without Path or Boundary
The individual is not an autonomous, solitary object but a thing of uncertain extent, with ambiguous boundaries. So too is matter, which loses much of its allure the moment it is reduced to an object, shorn of its viscosity, pressure and density. Both subject and matter resist their reduction into objects. Everything is interconnected and intertwined.
— Kengo Kuma
The concept behind this video is a direct address to architect Kengo Kuma’s ideas surrounding the anti-object. With a title and text taken directly from his book of the same name, it reconsiders the way we move through actual and abstract spaces that are historical, contemporary, and Indigenous in order to identify layers of utility and access.
Images and representations of two architectural structures in the Portland Metropolitan area that have direct and complicated connections to the Chinookan people who inhabit(ed) the land, are woven with audio tapes of one of the last speakers of chinuk wawa, the Chinookan creole. As with Reiko Hillyer’s DWP talk, “ Who Has the Right to the City? Design, Justice, and Public Space,” race and class inevitably play a large role in who can (and cannot) move through public spaces freely and easily. These localities of matter — a bridge, a plank house and audio tapes — resist their reduction into objects, and call anew for space and time given to wandering as a deliberate act and the empowerment of shared utility.
Some 25 miles north of Portland’s city center in Ridgefield, WA, sits the Cathlapotle Plankhouse. Located on the southwestern edge of the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge, Cathlapotle was named after the Chinookan town that stood on the site until 1835, and was completed a little more than 10 years ago in a partnership between the Chinook Indian Nation, Portland State University, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The space is open to the general public, but is also designated for private use by the tribe. Within Cathlapotle are carvings by Chinookan artists and allies. While there are plenty of photographs available of the interior of the plankhouse, and it’s often open for public use during summer park hours, I chose not to film inside for the intentions of this project. These were boundaries not up to me to delineate.
On the south end of downtown Portland, between the Marquam and Ross Island bridges, is Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People. It’s a cable-stayed bridge — a design that seems to focus on utility in the city’s efforts to provide pedestrian access across the river. The name of the bridge, Tilikum, means people. But depending on how a speaker uses it, it can also mean person, family, or tribe. On the eastern and western banks of the bridge are three carvings by Chinookan artist, Greg A. Robinson. Together, they make up one piece called, “We Have Always Lived Here.” The carvings have a distinct story and meaning in their connection to the indigenous Chinookan peoples.
In 1983, a linguist named Henry Zenk set out to document the language now known as chinuk wawa. This Chinookan creole has gone by other names over the years; Chinook Jargon being the most ubiquitous. Henry recorded his sessions with every person he could find who possessed some degree of fluency in the language. The speaker he learned the most from was Wilson Bobb, a 92-year-old Grand Ronde and Yakama Nation tribal member. Wilson grew up speaking the language on the Grand Ronde Reservation, about 60 miles west of Portland, but was living in White Swan, Washington when Henry met him. Over the course of two years, Henry learned and studied the language. After Wilson passed away in 1985, Henry, by default, became one of its last speakers.
I knew of the Wilson Bobb tapes — these relics of a conversation I had originally heard about from my own teacher, who was a student of Henry Zenk. Listening to them now, however, allows me to experience the friendship that formed between Wilson and Henry through their meandering conversations. As the two men from very different backgrounds wandered through chinuk wawa, they claimed space for the language to exist. It wasn’t a cold lexicon without heart or figurative meaning. Rather, a communal space that revealed how the language was used amongst friends.
Kuma says, “To wander is to trace the contours of particles and lend our ears to the sounds they make. We must scan the distance between particles, not by eye, but with our bodies moving in time. Only then are sounds born.”
Wandering through these localities of matter offers a new way to engage with them. Henry wandered through conversations with Wilson and subsequently played an important role in revitalizing a language. To wander across a bridge and around a plankhouse redefines each not as an “independent material object distinct from its environment,” but as anti-objects — compositions of matter inseparable from the nature around them.
Tilikum Crossing’s name, and the inclusion of sculptures by a contemporary Chinookan artist at the site, give an Indigenous community connection and access to this space. Yet, thousands of roads, bridges, beaches, towns, mountains and rivers remain throughout the Pacific Northwest, with names that also come from chinuk wawa. Many people, Indigenous and Settler alike, don’t know the origins of these names, or their meaning. The names become objects in this way — descriptors without description, devoid of any connection to the environment that gave them sound and form. To look upon them as “anti-objects” is to give them implications beyond characters composed on a sign or map.
If Tilikum Crossing hopes to truly function as a tool for inclusion and access, it must be looked upon not as a monument to past Indigenous presence, a “compression of history,” but rather as a merging of memory and utility. Similarly, the recordings between Henry and Wilson cannot be heard as documentary artifacts, but as tools for realizing the potential for a language to be spoken, for a language given life anew. What is modeled doesn’t have to be followed; rather, the next generation of speakers will have the privilege of wielding these tools and of creating new ones.
Likewise, the Cathlapotle Plankhouse cannot be seen as a replica of an ancient structure built by people no longer here. The Chinook Nation utilizes Cathlapotle, and sometimes when they occupy the plankhouse their events are not open to the public. This authority over access empowers a group of people historically denied that privilege, and defines their own representations within that space.
Whether in a city, wildlife refuge, or a classroom that’s listening to a conversation made historical by age, the time allowed for wandering through these areas is just as important as the act of wandering itself. Kuma says that, “Everything possessing a frequency is subordinate to time, and generates sounds and colors only when its contours have been traced in time ... we must cast ourselves in time and extract sounds from the particles of the wilderness.”
Paths don’t have to exist as stone or gravel, but as lines of thought that bridge memories of movement. Time affects experience, and experiences are activated through remembrance. This video is an activation of access.
I wandered through these spaces and realized any way I filmed them, any bits of audio I chose, would still be entirely subjective to the path I construct in an edit. And that would become an object itself. I can’t photograph these spaces and show you how to move within them, but I can show you where I went. I can’t tell you how long I was there, but I can construct an idea of the time I occupied. The paths and boundaries I created are vaporous and already gone, but the space remains waiting to be ambled through once again.