On Region & Identity
By Whitney Carter, in response to Tilt West Roundtable: Region & Identity
In her book, Terra Infirma (2000), Irit Rogoff argues that geography and location are a “source of authority in the fundamental questions of inclusion and exclusion and play a crucial role in the determination of identity and belonging.” Well into our second decade of the 21st century (specifically in a post-Trump world) the concept of regionalism feels both anachronistic and timely. In order to consider matters currently relevant to regionalism and identity, we must also acknowledge the complex and shifting practices of inclusivity, exclusivity, elitism, provincialism, and adaptability. Is geocentricity inherently problematic if humans are nomadic by nature?
Our identities and sense of belonging are tied to things as small as neighborhoods and schools, and as large as states (most recently seen through defining ourselves as either a red or blue state), countries, religions and gender. How are our identities tethered to and around the specific places we choose to occupy or not occupy? How do we define ourselves within those boundaries and constraints, both artificial and real? And are such broad ways of defining ourselves dangerous, beneficial, or both?
From my perspective, some of these changes were for the good of the entire creative community, while some of the changes created barriers and expectations, which stifled the energy that made Los Angeles so magical before this increased visibility.
In the contemporary art world geographical inclusion and exclusion are deeply rooted in, and connected to, notions of success and access to power; inclusivity and exclusivity are valuable currency. This is most evident in the current art world “centers” — Los Angeles and New York—as evidenced through access to collectors (money) and institutions (visibility). I lived in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2014 and worked in galleries at a time when significant shifts were happening and the city was being defined as a critical region for making art, marketing art, and producing exhibitions. Of course, this had been true for many decades, but perhaps most notable was the shift seen during and after the 2011 Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980. This initiative gave 11 million dollars to more than 60 institutions for exhibitions dedicated to examining the birth of the Los Angeles art scene. During this critical time for the city, I witnessed firsthand how both subtle and not-so-subtle boundaries were redrawn by insiders and outsiders as it became a place where what constituted belonging and community shifted quite dramatically. From my perspective, some of these changes were for the good of the entire creative community, while some of the changes created barriers and expectations, which stifled the energy that made Los Angeles so magical before this increased visibility.
When I relocated to Denver in 2014, I quickly became aware of similar growth and rapid change happening in the city due to the massive influx of people, like myself, moving here from other progressive American cities. The shifts here in Denver are not necessarily specific to its art world. But there are significant issues of belonging and authority of ownership over a place, which are palpable and highly specific to this region. One example of this which bewildered me was a curious symbol that some locals use to illustrate how deep their roots run here (specifically if one is born in Colorado) — the “NATIVE” emblem — a bumper sticker, illustrated in white text and all caps, in a classic green-and-white Colorado mountainscape license plate design.
The symbol became ubiquitous in the 1980s, another time when Colorado’s population soared due to an influx of immigrants from other countries and other states, specifically, California. Now the sticker has been resold for a new generation of Coloradans who feel the need to express their ownership and birthright over this region as the population and the demographics change so dramatically. Aside from the problem that “native” is a loaded word that in this context literally should only belong to the indigenous American Indians of the area, this sense of ownership via birthright intrigues me as a very antiquated and nostalgic idea of entitlement over a region—a sense of ownership and belonging longer, deeper, more authentically. This antagonistic pride is seen in many other areas of the United States and can be a powerful tool to express identity politics, for example: “locals only” culture found in certain surf regions, sports teams (and the pride of curses experienced through generations of fans), accents, particular food, enduring unbearable weather, and pride in particular landscapes. However, there is a deep sense of bloodlines here in Colorado that I find unique and its expression through the “native” title is one that we should continue to interrogate in how it may illustrate meaningful pride of place as well as its problematic sense of entitlement.
We have singular and shared pursuits of pride and humility with common purpose that can propel us forward within locations both chosen and not chosen.
We all belong and don’t belong depending on where we stand within a locale and how we interpret that place in relationship to our own bodies and minds. In our current global world, information about how identities are formed and expressed are specific to relation, to place, and to geography. Our conversations around region and identity can only take place in relationship to ‘other’ regions or identities. We have singular and shared pursuits of pride and humility with common purpose that can propel us forward within locations both chosen and not chosen. These shared identities can be a powerful tool during dangerous and uncertain times. How we use such tools must be carefully considered and perhaps, if we can harness our collective sense of pride within each of our places in the world, we can continue to create thriving communities with respect for alternative realities and identities no matter where we find ourselves.
Whitney Carter has over a decade of experience in commercial gallery ownership, management, program curation, and fine art logistics. She is currently the Director of Programming and Development for ArtCubed, an LA based experience production company that was founded with the goal of introducing a fresh perspective for the making, appreciation, and collection of art that reflects the state of culture today and transcends the confines of traditional art exhibits. Whitney received her BFA from Arizona State University and studied feminist art history at San Francisco State University, where she received her MA. She is one of the founding board members of Tilt West.
Tilt West’s mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture through live events and publishing efforts. We aim to provide a platform for inclusive community discussion and debate on a range of issues relevant to cultural production in Colorado and beyond. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions of the organization. For more information about our programs, including audio recordings of roundtable discussions, go to our website: tiltwest.org.