Visualizing Toxic Places

toxic bodies/toxic environments (2008)

In October 2008, the journal Environmental History released a special issue titled "toxic bodies/toxic environments: an interdisciplinary forum" to bring together environmental historians, science studies scholars, and historians of science to reflect on "cultural models and historical...Read more

There's Something in the Water

Tia-Simone Garder, a Black feminist scholar and a cross-disciplinary, mixed media artist asks, "what do histories and cartographies that trace and locate Black mobility along a river that moves between the Gulf of Mexico and Minnesota reveal about the lives and ...Read more

The Empirical Body: Sensing a Landscape in South India

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The Body in the Water

Velu told me that he had seen people with different instruments probe the water to measure its levels of toxicity. “But they never enter the water. Why don’t they just ask us fishermen? After all, only by entering the water do we make an income.”

The industrialization of Velu’s landscape has heavily affected the river that supports his income. The presence of copper, zinc and mercury has been confirmed by different scientific tests that were designed to measure the levels of bioaccumulation that aquatic life in the river had endured. But Velu knows that the water is polluted. His body, he insisted, was enough to make sense of it.


In the image above, Velu and Surya are drawing the nets they had set up in the river, back onto the boat. Both the action of setting up the nets and the work needed to draw them back on the boat demands the body to be fully or partially immersed in the water. His feet traverse the riverbed, making calculations of its depth and consistency. His body measures the strength of the current as he sets up the nets to withstand its force. His hands work through the nets in the water, untangling any unnecessary accretion that might hamper the proper functioning of his nets. All routine calculations of their river and all measured by their body.


At first glance this image might just appear as two men in the process of fishing. But I wish to reorient our reading of the image. This image is also a representation of the body’s intimacy with toxicity. Not solely as victims of industrial pollution, but also as “embodied empiricists” in their own landscape.  Knowing that the water is polluted changes our perspective of the two men. But it is in knowing that both Velu and Surya are well aware of the water’s pollution, through its influence on their body and in their place, can we visualize what we otherwise might believe only lies beneath the surface.


Fire in the Sky

After drawing the nets on to the boat, Velu and Surya sort out their catch. Small prawns form one cluster, the few tiger prawns another, while the rest of the catch is released back in the water. The process of segregation is a long and tedious one. Once complete, Velu and Surya transfer each pile in to different baskets, storing them in an icebox at the very end. They both sigh in relief and rest their backs to the sides of the boat, finally looking out into the distance as opposed to the floor of their boat.


“It used to be scary before the companies came… forests all around… you could even hear jackals at night. I used to get really scared but now… you can see for yourself… this is what happens when the companies come”.


Velu tells me this with his eyes fixed on the power plant in the distance. We see the plant puff away flushes of steam from its stacks, illuminating a once “scary” place with its hyper visible presence. But can we envision its absence? It is precisely this, thinking of the same place without a power plant, without chimneys puffing steam, without incandescent lights setting dark skies on fire, without mercury in the water and in the fish, without the mechanized sounds of energy infrastructures mingling through the day and night, without the smells of an industrial intruder, without “toxicity”, that Velu remembers vividly. This sensorial transformation of place, from jackals to smoke stacks, is where toxicity becomes visible. While this experience is intimate and is a memory that is located in certain bodies, thinking through the absence of ‘toxicity’ in the image above, might help the viewer rethink what is actually there.


The Nets

After the nets are drawn on to the boat, Velu and Surya keenly inspect them, ensuring that all of the catch falls to the floor, and that there isn't much damage to them. Most often there isn't anything beyond a few frayed ends that would easily be mended the next day. But the nets tell another story that remind the fishers of their toxic landscape. Caked in the residues of the coal-fired thermal power plants that surround them, the once blue nets have incresingly accomodated the greys and blacks of coal dust and slurry. "They look dull now" was Velu's way of telling me that there is something else, in the air, in the water, in his body and his nets, that could be measured by the senses. The material life of things that ineract with the lives of fishers, are equally places were toxicity becomes visible. 

The Catch

Towards the end, Velu and Surya pile the catch together and store it in an ice box. Depending on the size of their catch, fishers choose to sell the shrimp and prawns at the smaller local market or the central fish market that attracts consumers that buy in larger quantities. However, both Velu and Surya insisted that the size of their catch had significantly reduced since the construction of the power plants. This coupled with an increasingly silted river that suffered from numeorus infrastructures that impeded its tidal rhythym only aggrevated their concerns for their landscape. But when a study suggested that the industrial discharge that was let in to the river had accumulated in to the life of their catch, the headman of the fishing village insisted that the reports were false. "We eat what comes out of the river and nothing happens to us", he said proudly, and assured that the same would be true for me. While toxicity makes itself visible to the fishers in this landscape, it is selectively rendered invisible as well. The boundaries of visible and invisble toxicity, though porous, suggests a complex politics of measure that traverse the daily lives of human and non-human actors in a toxic place. I intend for this image to be read in that light. Can we look at it and ask ourselves where the entangled boundaries of toxicity end? 

Constructing Heteronormative Urban Spatialities

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Politicizing Urban Aesthetics

In the latter part of the nineteenth-century, representations of poor people and their neighborhoods were complemented with the emergence of documentary photography. The integration of photographic images in sociological research developed a knowledge system premised on the belief that photographs could not lie and that cameras captured reality and presented subjects in a truthful manner (Chronopoulos 2014, 209).  For theorists seeking universal force-causing claims to explain social phenomena, housing, and neighborhood conditions, illiteracy and poverty became omens of gender and sexual pathologies that could topple the rational order of cities and even the nation (Ferguson 2004, 77).

The politicization of aesthetics in the closing decades of the 19th century proved to be a powerful discursive tool for Progressives who sought to eliminate perceived social disorders engendered by industrial urbanization vis-à-vis the wholesale spatial reconfiguration of cities. As Ferguson states,

Postulating sexuality as a general and diffuse causality provides an example of how sexuality came to mean much more than eros, “sexual instincts”, and practices but came to signify a host of apparently “nonsexual” factors (Ferguson 2004, 77).

Published in 1950, the first comprehensive plan proposed for Washington, D.C. identified Southwest as a “problem area” suffering from urban “blight” in need of redevelopment (NCPPC). At the end of 1952, with the passage of the first urban renewal plan for a Southwest Project Area B[i], urban renewal moved from the planning stage to the action stage, triggering a wave of racial dramas in cities across the U.S. Located in the 700-block area of 4½ Street SW, Frank’s Department Store was well within the 76-acre boundary of Project Area B. Faced with the prospect of losing his business Mr. Morris and neighboring business owner Goldie Schneider refused to sell to the RLA. To prevent the government from taking their properties by eminent domain Mr. Morris and Mrs. Schneider filed suit in federal district court, challenging the constitutionality of the DCRA. They argued the government’s ability and scope to take and transfer private property to private developers as part of a project to eliminate “blight” does not constitute a legitimate “public use.” Rather, the taking of private property from one business owner for the benefit of another business owner under eminent domain amounts to an unconstitutional taking, thus violating the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Contending their businesses were not “blighted” (Fig. 3), claimants further argued that since the DCRA had not defined the term “blight,” the RLA could not apply this ambiguous term to all of Project Area B. That said, however, the circuit court dismissed their allegations and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the decision and reaffirmed the constitutionality of the DCRA. The conflict between Morris, Schneider, and the RLA highlights a critical tension in American jurisprudence during the political economy of the early Cold War: the struggle to balance an image of the U.S. as a formally liberal-capitalist nation against rationalizations for sustained maldistribution along social divides. It also illuminates an epistemic lag between the American judicial system and sociocultural developments.

[i] Southwest Washington Urban Renewal Area – bounded by Independence Avenue, Washington Avenue, South Capitol Street, Canal Street, P Street, Maine Avenue and Washington Channel, Fourteenth Street, D Street, & Twelfth Street – for more info. refer to the HABS Report by the National Parks Service.

Neoliberal Specifics of Dominance in Washington, DC

Since its initial founding by the Residence Act of 1790, the urban geography of Washington, DC, has long become the battleground wherein the “limits of citizenship are manifest” (Carr et al. 2009: 1964). In 2006, the DC, Council enacted a Prostitution Free Zone (PFZ) code, wherein a city where prostitution has long been formally criminalized since the Mann Act of 1910, the new law constituted what may be viewed as geographies of ‘zero-tolerance’ attitude towards sex work. Under the auspices of ‘quality of life’ controls (Mitchell 2003), the PFZ ordinance (Fig. 1) vested the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) substantial discretionary powers to determine and declare a radius of blocks off-limits to already illegal prostitution or sex-work related activities for time periods lasting up to ten consecutive days (Edelman 2011: 849). Suspects ordered to disperse by the police for alleged prostitution or prostitution-related activities were “subject to a literal banishment – an evicted individual could not return to that area for the duration of the implemented zone” (Brunn 2018: 108). Refusal to disperse legitimated arrests, humiliation, and even harassment by police officers. As Alison Brunn agued: “in terms of governance and management of urban space, the figure of the sex worker was seen as a hallmark of ‘urban blight,’ whose existence in public space served as a stand-in for the existence of other stigmatized or illegal activities, such as drug use and violent crime” (2018: 107). To this end, the trans body, specifically, black trans and trans-of-color bodies were pathologized and publicized as toxifying agents in urban spaces that must be eliminated in order to mitigate geographies of ‘risk.’ 

VtP Draft Proposal: Delhi's air

Through this project, I want to think about what it means to link Delhi and air through an apostrophe. What is Delhi’s air? For whom is Delhi’s air? What is being seen? What ways of seeing are being cultivated? What is articulated but not cultivated? What illegibilities do visualizing...Read more

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