Land grabbing is a form of exploitation: a way of acquiring territory that is free or readily available from users who are unable to maintain their existing property rights. The United States was founded on the notion of the land grab as light-skinned European colonists took over lands previously used by native people. Land-grabbing is also a form of consolidation; small rural farms in the Soviet Union were collectivised throughout the 20th century, by “choice” and by intimidation, until the fall of communism. In capitalist countries, corporations and agro businesses likewise bought out small-time land-owners to take over large areas with rationalised farming and forestry practices.
Born in Poland, I was raised in the United States and have lived in France since 2006. I work in sculpture, installation and environmental art. With my own roots spread over two continents, I have a constantly shifting relationship between my personal identity and national allegiances. The works in “Land Grab” address border formation and maintenance from a geopolitical, historical, psychological and carnal perspective.
I reflect on the significance of borders, both within my own life, and in the lives of my neighbours, through images, sculptures, and installations. The word border in English means both the outer limit of a place, and an ornamental edge (the word is derived from the French word bordure, or edge). The word frontier in English, which means border in French, has strong connotations with the exploration and colonization of unknown places. The French border is a barrier that defines that nation’s land, but the American frontier is a horizon, an extreme site where the spirit of the future lies. The works in the exhibition, including the Mapping Aluminium Series combine references to land surveys and land use.
Historically, the American border was ever-expanding and outward-looking. The frontier comes from the word front, the vanguard of the army, the part of the country that looks ahead and beyond. The frontier of the Wild West is a springboard to the wild and the lawless; to romanticised freedom and corrupt land deals. It represents rebellion and opportunity rather than limits on our actions. A series of postcard entitled 525,949,000 Minute Sculptures, explores the consensus of the tourist industry’s land grabs on France’s Atlantic coast.
As I begin to move back to the United States after spending 10 years abroad in Europe, the ambivalent symbol of the border takes on a new level of meaning in my artwork. At the Mission, I am extending my Digital Fingerprint series to engage with Chicago, a city that has had a central role in the formation of my own identity. Land-grabbing is a very real source of the displacement experienced by many migrants who end up in the city, today. At the same time, as swaths of the city center experience rapid gentrification, new populations within the Windy City are displaced from formerly blue collar neighbourhoods.
Once land is acquired on a large scale, new owners erect bureaucratic, financial and cultural barriers to keep what they own. Is ownership (and border construction) always and inherently a land grab? The Internal Frontier series explores how borders shape our identities, long after they have been legally established and/or physically transgressed.