In grade school, my classmates and I were required to illustrate a typical Northeastern American colonial settlement on a hill. Our teacher praised our projects according to the quality of the drawing and the historical accuracy of the town’s features. I succeeded at the former, but couldn’t resist inserting my own manipulations and fantasies amongst the butcher shops, blacksmiths, churches, banks, and tobacco farms. A mound populated by mystical creatures seemed just as plausible as this civic stereotype. For kids, playful illusions obscure linear time and keep them at arm’s length from the dusty faces of people whom we were told made these places we live in.
Coined by John Winthrop in 1630, the phrase “city on a hill,” which is borrowed from the Gospel, is supposed to be an inspirational statement of transcendental purpose, and it has buttressed American enterprise and Western expansion for centuries. International relations theorist Hans Morgenthau called the proliferation of illusions like the “city on a hill,” an “abuse of reality” because it conceals the violence of our so-called democratizing mission. It’s well documented that the truth of this expansion is comprised of historical corridors much more squalid. However, the heavy doors leading to these passageways are so shiny and ornate it’s easy to forget that you’re supposed to open and walk through them rather than idle seduced.
Seattle was once a city on a much larger hill before civil engineer R.H. Thomson initiated a project that sleuthed millions of cubic yards of earth into the Elliott Bay mudflats. During this regrade project several property owners refused to yield “their” land to the city, so workers washed away the dirt around their property lines leaving massive earthen podiums, which became colloquially known as “spite mounds.” It’s unclear whether these property owners were protecting Winthrop’s false reality, abandoning it, or grasping to maintain their mountain views.
Delusion is a scary phenomenon because it prevents you from knowing when it’s in the driver’s seat. I moved to Seattle six years ago to convalesce after waking up to the fact that I had capitulated years to a bankrupt perspective. Perhaps I will wake up tomorrow knowing I’ve done it again.
In his poem “Gerontion,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions.” For “Too Many Cunning Passages” I tried to build an exhibition that examines history, Seattle’s and my own, as a distressing labyrinth populated by the contradictory voices of characters with outsized ambitions and tenuous holds on reality.