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Author: Joy Parr
Title: Lostscapes: Found Sources in Search of a Fitting Representation
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2004

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Source: Lostscapes: Found Sources in Search of a Fitting Representation
Joy Parr

vol. 7, no. 1, April 2004
Article Type: Article

Lostscapes: Found Sources in Search of a Fitting Representation

Joy Parr

Canada Research Chair, Technology Culture and Risk

University of Western Ontario

London ON N6A 5B7


The Canadian community of Iroquois was flooded in 1958 to build the St. Lawrence Seaway and its accompanying hydroelectric dams. Expropriation photos of every structure in the drowned town remain. Townspeople have made audiotapes of their recollected walks along the lost streetscapes. Guided by the historical practice of Laura Cameron, and the artistic practice of Janet Cardiff, the author has begun to construct a simulacrum of this walking village, and seeks suggestions from journal readers.

By preference, historians have been wordsmiths. We value written words most as sources, use the skills of the word-smart to appraise the provenance, integrity, and reliability of this evidence, and use sentences and paragraphs to tell what we know. [1] The predisposition in Clio's craft is with making written records intelligible to the eye. This, in turn, has inflected historians' work with information technologies from the early days of linking nominal records. The historian's orientation has been empirical and social scientific. We rank the rational over the intuitive, the distinctly cerebral over the otherwise embodied. Our practice marginalizes any fleshly perceptions about physical landscape and material circumstances. These we take as mere subjective evocations, suspect until they are distilled into written words. We more readily consider the written word to be objective. The written word becomes attached to the mind, while all other sensible information becomes attached to body; and all the sainted and benighted philosophical history of the mind-body distinction comes muscling in.  [2]

Yet, Keith Thomas argued, now more than a decade ago, "the historian who wants to study the past until he can hear the people talking must therefore also be able to visualize them as they conversed."  [3] Generally historians have overlooked or declined to recognize such sensuous knowledge as chronologically specific, timely, and the stuff of history, even though year by year, since this last century began, a smaller and smaller proportion of historical documents has been registered in printed words. More of the detritus of the past is visual and aural, lodged in non-textual forms on film, tape and disk, projected before us on a shimmering screen. Our records are unloosing their ties to the words we have relied on as sources. As historians will we follow these new forms, and from this forming archive reclaim more of the past that whole-sensing bodies have known? What would a venture into this familiar and untold terrain be like?

These goal-to-craft histories, which put more of these records to use and thus invoke the past as it engaged more of the sensing bodies of our historical subjects, present particular challenges and opportunities for those of us who have been intrigued by and wish to master new information technologies. Such a change—using more of the aural and oral evidence to know what the ear knew, and more of the photographic, cartographic, architectural and planning record to locate the moving, gesturing and dwelling body in time and place, early on—will draw protest from our colleagues. For these initiatives challenge the long-standing, magic thinking within our craft about the superior stability and depersonalized truth-telling power of the written word. We recognize these protests as the casual ground for refutations of oral history.  [4]

These protests concerning oral history are epistemologically unsound. Oral history is not unique in being held within a bodily storehouse of memory. All knowledge—the ocular, the aural, the haptic, the tactile—comes to us by reference through some sensing body. We know the world in so far as our bodies perceive it and can make sense of these perceptions. We know the world by reference and implication from all our physical senses. This is true of parliamentary debates and the wide variety of nominal records linked to reconstruct families and communities. It is true for the embodied, tacit knowledge that would form one base in evidence for a more embodied history. The much more limited claim from the earlier linguistic "turn"—that we have and hold experiences only in so far as words can be summoned to express them, presupposes that we know only what we can tell. The historical actors we seek to understand made their way in the world with help and hindrance from habits, reflexes, memories and skills they held bodily, wordlessly, and beyond speech. The linguistic does not limit what the body can know. We know what we cannot tell. Without reference to the word, the bodies of historical actors have recognized and attributed meaning to physically and temporally specific sensations.

Thus a history that acknowledges and analyses what the body knows by analogy, association, and allusion represents a continuity, not a departure in our research practices. [5] The skill of the physician, the athlete, or the tradesman is such a tuning of body and mind, learned by emulation, recognizable in the movement of the muscle, knowable in action but eluding abstraction. Understanding recorded corporeally as habit, reflex and tacit knowledge is not, by this provenance alone, less stable or detached than evidence and conclusions set down in cold type. The possibilities new information technologies offer are to bring more of this temporally specific knowledge—material tacit beyond words—into the interpretive frame of historical practice.


I have undertaken a study of Canadian mega-projects, and the individuals who had first-hand experience of these large engineering works—works defining features of the political, diplomatic, economic and technological history of Canada in the 1950s, and transforming the lives of those who experienced them. In the vicinity were many living beings—the workers, engineers, tourists and travelers who came to the construction sites to work and wonder, and the fish, flora, fauna and human beings who found themselves, through no fault of their own, swimming, sprouting and standing in the way of progress. They were all witness to events of such gigantism and erasure, to re-orderings by explosion, to fire and flood so cataclysmic, and to such stupendous improving, that all were confounded. A history of the politics, diplomacy, economics, and technology of these events, absent their sensuous histories, would be trivializing and garrulous nonsense.

On the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River eight towns, some of them dating from the arrival of Loyalist settlers in the wake of the American Revolution, were inundated, some wholly, some in part, by rising waters that would create hydro-electric power and a shipping channel deep enough for ocean-going vessels. The Canadian Seaway, a public undertaking, jointly planned and funded by the province of Ontario and the federal government, required massive expropriation.

Iroquois was the first of the St. Lawrence villages remade to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was the problem-solving test case, the ur of this gargantuan earth and water moving enterprise. And remade it was—its stores and garages, streets, sewers and schools, places of worship, work and play reconfected. Those houses which could bear it, and their residents, whose forbearance was not questioned, all were moved a mile north from the old river's edge, onto pasture land beyond reach of the coming flood. The resettlement of Iroquois began in the fall of 1955 and ceased, on time, in the summer of 1958.

In three years the habits, memories and tacit knowledge accrued over six generations of bodily encounters lost their anchors in the physical and social space of the village.  [6] The event that transformed the river at Iroquois was abrupt and cataclysmic, like a car accident, but the sensuous history of the change was different. Some succumbed to the trauma right away. For others in the summer of 1958, there began something akin to a long, testing and unwelcome regime of physical rehabilitation, a struggle back that could accommodate the effects of the trauma but never quite restore to the self the sensuous body it once had been.

How did the town change? With a print screen in a scholarly journal, I can go only part of the way. The better account, a merged reading of the audio, video and pictorial accounts, will be longer, contain more nuances, and be more complete. For this account, the resources are considerable. Many residents stayed on in the new Iroquois, their memories of the old town secured in the odd disjunctions between those nineteenth century frame houses which were moved and the crescents and cul-de-sacs of the model townscape into which they were implanted beside modern bungalows. The incidence of ownership of home-movie cameras, in Iroquois and in all the villages awaiting inundation, seems to have been exceptionally high, and for understandable reasons. From the beginning, recollections were organized and edited, household-by-household, by the frames of these home movies. For the twentieth anniversary of the flooding, a community group engaged a professional editor to bring parts of these private collections into a video. This video is widely owned in town and has come to constitute the material base for the collective memory of both the generation that was transplanted and of its children, who have no personal experience with old Iroquois.

This film record is incomplete, but the photographic record is less so. Before the expropriation began, a division of Ontario Hydro photographed every element in the built environment of old Iroquois, from the docks along the river back to the barns at the edge of town, from the most grand edifices along the streets to the work sheds and privies that lined the lanes behind. The photograph of each structure is keyed to a street map of the town. And, because close knowledge of the topography of the site was so crucial to the engineers, the topography of the streetscape, now below the surface of the St. Lawrence, is available.

The residents of Iroquois now want to create a simulacrum of their lost town. Their aspiration is historically intriguing, both for what it says about their legacy of displacement and for the interpreting instrument their aspiration might yield. And so together, we have embarked on a journey into information technologies in search of literally lost ground. We have begun with a static two-dimensional representation, setting the buildings side-by-side along the streets and, using the fire-insurance atlases, positioning the structures so that the two sides of each street face each other in the reconstruction as they once did in town. Residents responded readily to the suggestion that they make audio tapes describing the parts of town they knew best—walks along the river and the highway which was main street, and their journeys to church, to school and to the linen mill which was the principal employer in Iroquois. These recollections are about habits and events, smells, sounds, sightlines and physical sensations as they changed through time and through the seasons. Our project now is to link these photographic and oral records in a way that will make walking again in old Iroquois to some degree virtually possible. Two examples, one from scholarly and one from artistic practice, have guided our beginnings.


In 1993, Laura Cameron, then an MA student in history at the University of British Columbia, created a hypermedia essay, "Disappearing a Lake: A Meditation on Method and Mosquitoes," which incorporated images, texts and records she had found as she researched her thesis. [7] The thesis was about the draining of a large, shallow lake in the Lower Fraser Valley of southwest British Columbia. The aim of that engineering work of the 1920s was to turn to agricultural purposes the 22,000 acres that once lay (and could be again were the hydraulic system massively to fail) at the bottom of Sumas Lake. Cameron installed her hypertext stack made with HyperCard software onto a MAC PowerBook 100, and carried it about with her as she continued the research which became her first book, Openings, A Meditation on History, Method and Sumas Lake.  [8]

Openings is a reflection on the crafting of historical representations using information technologies that break with the linearity of a printed text. Such technologies capture the subjectivities of many informants, making them placeholders along a settled path of possibilities. These possibilities present the visitor to the site with the vexed illusion of choice. Cameron argues, following George Landow,  [9] that despite their obvious fixities, hypertexts enable qualitative thought both for the historian and the recollectors informing his or her work, creating a mobile, recuperating "flow space."  [10] Diverse recollections arise, tied and stimulated by the remnants of specific sites, for the oral is linked to place, and time is known by its embeddedness in place.  [11]

Cameron used her hypertext as an articulating mnemonic to explore the longer history of living with the lake. Its multiple perspectives situated her living and documentary informants to respond to William Cronon's question, "How does this place cycle?"  [12] We have been using our less supple laminated streetscapes, similarly, to begin to reclaim the presence of old Iroquois.

The associations between place and sensory subjectivities remembered are not taut, but, as we know, neither are the subjectivities and the associations of the writer fixed except as they are inscribed on the page. Cameron concludes her meditation with a joke on herself and the aspirations we, in Iroquois, share with her. She assumes the improbable subjectivity of a mosquito, the bane of all the past dwellers by Sumas Lake, to acknowledge the insufficiency of the techniques she has deployed to portray the human and non-human relationships that are the focus of her search. "Can there ever be enough bytes to capture the implications of my bites?" asks the mosquito, compensated in part for the appropriation of his voice, by being given the last word.  [13]


We also are drawing on the explorations of memory and place of the Canadian artist, Janet Cardiff, whose work with George Bures Miller was the subject of a recent exhibition organized by P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Centre in Long Island City, New York. Her work is accessible in part through her website.  [14] Cardiff began with photographic collage and printing, and moved from this static two-dimensional work to experimenting with sound and movement.  [15] She is best known now for a series of CD and DVD guided walks. Thus our documentary goals in Iroquois parallel in certain ways the trajectory of her artistic practice.

One of Cardiff's goals is to fluidly link the mental landscapes and memory associations to a particular historical place.  [16] As Cameron found that her hypertext stimulated informants' multiple recollections about a singular vantage point, Cardiff employs audio elements to achieve a layering effect to invoke "different worlds ... in that same location but previously."  [17] Her walks are like the virtual reality paths of computer games and play stations, but they are set in real locations, and designed (and this is a goal we in Iroquois share) "to give the participant the physical experience of different types and textures of space."  [18]

Cardiff's work has a history in the psycho-geographies created by the Situationalists in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s. Their derivés were territorial recognizances, directive mappings of the urban environment. Frances Alÿs's city walks of the 1990s and Andrea Fraser's recent elaborations on the museum audio-guide are also kin to her project.  [19] The audio walks are layered to associate multiple perspectives with a single site, but the process of walking, which is diachronic rather than synchronic, and paced by the sounding footfalls heard through the Walkman headphones, draws on the associations between walking and remembering. This was an association the people of Iroquois made readily, and the prompt to remember the town, by recalling their bodies moving through it along chosen routes, has yielded richly evocative audio accounts. This has been the case because, as Cardiff notes, audio works well "at representing how we think, how our minds function ... constantly flipping back and forth" between realities.  [20]

The walks use interactive software and technologies against their grain, not to liberate participants from settled time and place, but to challenge the dislocation that might be implied by immersive environments and new media. Her walks resist the ideology "of transcendence of the bodily into the virtual, and of memory into the digital archive,"  [21] and rather affirm the visceral, if fluid, emplacement of body and memory. As the derivés required that participants set aside their reflexive practices and listen to prompts which reassembled the territory around them,  [22] Cardiff's scripts, by shifting register between directions to the walker, transparent descriptions of the site, narratives of memory and conversations with the listener,  [23] distinguish the multiple subjectivities which the audio technology presents both as transposed layers and as juxtaposed elements. This technique artfully distinguishes the audio content by provenance and perspective, a comfort to those of us drawn to these new media, yet loyal to Clio's cultural conventions concerning footnotes.

Our work on Iroquois will be the prototype for a cluster of reclaimed lostscapes. The others we are preparing are for the area around Nakusp in the West Kootenays of British Columbia and for region now known as Camp Gagetown in New Brunswick. The narrow Columbia River Valley by Nakusp was drowned in 1968 to create a storage reservoir for hydraulic power sites south of the Canadian-American border in Washington State. The Loyalist and Irish settlers of the mixed agriculture and forestry lands south of the Saint John River Valley were expropriated in 1953 so that their lands could be used for a NATO training and tank-testing range with ready access to an Atlantic sea port. We are indebted to Cameron for her insistence that oral testimonies are made from a witness's knowledge of a specific physical landscape and passed on with the assumption that listeners have embodied knowledge of that place. In rebuilding the places they knew, we are gradually making more sense of their recollections, and setting their histories in a more sensuously rich context. Cardiff's audio and now more commonly video walks emphasize the fluidity of memory associations with landscapes, and create in the sensibility of the local narrator several distinctive, homologous ways of knowing place.  [24] Our challenge now is to use DVD technologies similarly, against the grain, to create a satisfying simulacrum of these places residents continue to recall in tranquillity tinged with yearning. We hope to meld historical and contemporary artist practices to make a scholarly contribution that will also succour local communities still grieving the loss of the places where their bodies first absorbed the culture of place.


1. The recent work of our colleagues teaching history of film courses is, of course, an exception, as are recent books on the material bases of popular culture. Examples from the Canadian history literature are Jonathon Vance. Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997 and H. V. Nelles. The Art of Nation-Building: Pageantry and Spectacle at Québec's Centenary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

2. An engaging essay on this question is Peter Dear, "A Mechanical Microcosm: Bodily Passions, Good Manners, and Cartesian Mechanism," in Lawrence and Shapin. Science Incarnate, 51-82.

3. Keith Thomas, "Introduction," in Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. A Cultural History of Gesture. Cambridge: Polity, 1991, 6.

4. Paul Thompson offers a brilliant and, to me, compelling refutation of this distinction in his essay on evidence in Voices of the Past. Similarly, the responses by Stan Cuthand and Emma LaRocque to the fur-trader George Nelson's diary illuminate the racial and post-colonial politics that privilege the truth telling of written texts. See Paul Thompson. Voice of the Past, third edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 for his chapter, "Evidence," 118-72; Stan Cuthand, "On Nelson's Text," 189-98; and Emma LaRocque, "On the Ethics of Publishing Historical Documents," in Jennifer S. H. Brown and Roger Brightman. "The Orders of the Dreamed": George Nelson on Cree Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988.

5. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension 20-24, 32-35, 42; Radley. 12-13, 19-21; Ann Game, "Time, space, memory, with reference to Bachelard," in Mike Featherstone, et al., Global Modernities. London: Sage, 1995 193-7.

6. See similarly Alan Read. Theatre and Everyday Life: The Ethics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1993, chapter 3, "Everyday Life," 103-49.


8. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.

9. George Landow. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, 185.

10. Cameron. Openings, 8, 10, 11.

11. Cameron. Openings, 78, 85, 88.

12. Cameron. Openings, 43, 48; William Cronon, "Kennecott Journey," in William Cronon, George Miles and Jay Gitlin. Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America's Western Past. New York: Norton, 1992, 35.

13. Cameron. Openings, 92, 94.

14. The exhibition was shown at PS 1 from October 2001 to January 2002, at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, May to September 2002, and at Pallazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, November 2002 through January 2003. The accompanying catalogue is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Janet Cardiff, A Survey of Works Including Collaborations with George Bures Miller. Long Island City: P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 2001; see also

15. Christove-Bakargiev, Janet Cardiff, 15.

16. Francine Périnet, "Foreword," A Large Slow River, Janet Cardiff. Oakville, Ontario: Oakville Galleries, 2001, 9

17. Interview with Janet Cardiff in Christov-Bakargiev. Janet Cardiff, 30, 24.

18. Christov-Bakargiev. Janet Cardiff, 22.

19. Marnie Fleming, "A Large Slow River" in A Large Slow River, Janet Cardiff, 28; Christov-Bakargiev, Janet Cardiff , 26.

20. Interview with Janet Cardiff in Christov-Bakargiev, Janet Cardiff, 29.

21. Christov-Bakargiev. Janet Cardiff, 33-34.

22. Fleming, "A Large Slow River," 30.

23. Christov-Bakargiev. Janet Cardiff, 23.

24. On a similar aspiration in the work of Rhoda Metraux see David Howes, Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Cultural and Social Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2003, 11-12.