Contextualizing Cultural Landscapes and Political Geography with Montage

Kenneth D. Madsen
Department of Geography
The Ohio State University

Much of my work as a cultural and political geographer is an effort to make sense of borders from multiple points of view.  Landscape photography is often useful in this  regard, but is inherently partial and limited by perspective. By crafting reconciliation or creating disjuncture through the juxtaposition of divergent imagery, however, montage highlights the diverse positionalities that are present and approaches a fuller understanding of a place’s essence.  In the accompanying photos (Figure 1) four distinct aspects of Friendship Park – located between a double border fence near San Diego, California – were framed in 2013 within a few feet of each other and are re-assembled.  By themselves each helps communicates a specific aspect of the contemporary U.S.-Mexico boundary: order, security, environmental setting, and ultimate limits.  Together the collection further elaborates and qualifies the geographic context of the border: access for who? control over what? at what price? where and how far?

Figure 1: Friendship Park: North, South, East, and West; Photos by Kenneth D. Madsen

Figure 1: Friendship Park: North, South, East, and West; Photos by Kenneth D. Madsen

Figure 2: Octagon Earthworks; Photos by Timothy E. Black

Figure 2: Octagon Earthworks; Photos by Timothy E. Black

In Figure 2, consider how a montage of images provides insight to the relationship diverse groups have to the Octagon Earthworks in Newark, Ohio.  Built by Native Americans about 2000 years ago in alignment with lunar cycles, title to this property is currently held by the Ohio Historical Society while an exclusive country club holds a long-term lease to use the site as a golf course.  Access to the general public and indigenous people with deep cultural ties to this geography is limited to a few days a year.  How is this place controlled and contested?  What is its past and future as an indigenous place?  What is so important about this particular space?  Such geographic questions are ultimately answered more effectively through the intersections created by montage than a singular image and perhaps even more succinctly than a traditional narrative.  As in film and other creative works, it is the gaps and our attempt as viewers to bridge those  disconnects and understand the images relationally that are telling here.

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Figure 3: Anti Immigration Thanksgiving by Jeff Parker, Florida Today

In a very different way, movie mashups bring together multiple cinematic traditions – a montage of montages.  In case someone missed the point behind James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, for example, the overlay of that movie’s soundtrack with video from the 1995 movie Pocahontas makes for a compelling commentary on the history of colonialism and the politics of place (See Szuch 2010).  Confronted in the context of an animated children’s film and reference to a specific colonial history, however, the veneer of a futuristic action film fades away and the violence of economic colonialism is laid bare.

Political cartoons (Figure 3) can also bring together diverse issues.  While not a montage as usually envisioned, this form of commentary uses humor to make a point and as a result can be quite effectual despite its explicit political perspective.  This medium catches people with their guard down but also does not require its readers to change their position – only to recognize a kernel of relevance in the disjuncture that it creates.  In the accompanying example which draws an analogy between contemporary fence-building efforts and the arrival of pilgrims in what is now the United States, readers are pushed to think about the hypocrisy of building such structures, the risks of letting one’s guard down in terms of national defense, or in a more philosophical sense even the very nature of territoriality.  While interpretation is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, contemplation is sparked by such an encounter.  There is power in the contrasts and comparisons created by montage.

References

Parker, J. 2008. Anti Immigration Thanksgiving. Florida Today. http://www.caglecartoons.com/viewimage.asp?ID={A15A518D-368B-40C2-9945- D2717DAA508C}  (accessed 19 February 2014).

Szuch, R. 2010. Avatar/Pocahontas Mashup. http://vimeo.com/9389738 (accessed 19 February 2014).

Download the PDF of this article here: Madsen

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