An ER doctor's attempt to un-subdivide the land
If you think about it, the idea of land ownership is a peculiar thing. There was a time in our history when land didn't belong to anybody. In the case of the United States, since a series of Homestead Acts were passed in the late 1800's, and indigenous populations were forcefully moved onto reservations, or otherwise assimilated, vast American lands have gone through countless rounds of subdivisions to become the modern, if curious, map.
It is what it is. Or is it? This is what Dr. Rob Gorski is protesting, or at least trying to start a conversation about. In 2010, Dr. Rob–as his friends affectionately call him after his position as an ER doctor at a hospital in New Jersey–purchased Rabbit Island, a 91 acre forested island in Lake Superior three miles east of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, for $140,000. According to Dr. Rob, who spent a significant amount of his youth in the region, it was love at first sight. "I loved the idea of preserving an island that had never been touched, never been developed, never been timbered, and never divided."
Despite the abundant and seemingly untouched nature of the surrounding forestlands in northern Michigan, the area does have its share of scars <> incurred from a historical cycle of copper mining booms and a busts. Take the ruin of the Quincy mine rock smelter, for example, located 15 miles from the island on the mainland. Its surrounding stamp sand dunes are made of a mixture of crushed mine rock and chemicals. "They have been trying to seed the rust-colored sand years now, but nothing will grow. It won't support life." There is also a derelict stamp mill in Gay, Michigan, and its black sand byproducts were dumped in Lake Superior and then pushed many miles down the shoreline by lake currents over the course of 60 years. They have now reached a man-made pier in the lake, which has slowed their movement, though they have decimated adjacent trout spawning habitats and riparian environments in the process. "The results of the mining boom are still in the region. People are proud of their mining heritage, but scarred by it too. 100 years of mining wealth for copper industry investors was gained in return for 850 years of pollution and decreased quality of life for an entire region. This type of business model has historically been pulled off because there has not been scientific understanding of negative externalities, and time allows for evasion of responsibility as companies declare bankruptcy and generations change. The land, however, remains constant–for both better and worse."
At the time ofspecific plan for what to do with the island, but one of the first things he undertook was placing a conservation easement on the property in collaboration with the Keweenaw Land Trust. "I wanted to lock in the wilderness character of the island. I wanted to make sure that it would remain untouched forever."
As for what to do next, people around him suggested all sorts of ideas. At the time the locavore and artisanal movements started to peak, and many people proposed ideas related to sustainability: permaculture, gardens, water and solar systems, introducing small game species, etc. Finance types had various ideas aimed at making money. "In the context of what I could personally gain from the island, there is, theoretically, a lot of potential. I could subdivide it, sell parcels, rent it out, lumber it, commercialize it; all sorts of things. But if you maintain the longest possible horizon for your definition of success, you can't do better than leaving it as it is, especially in the context of the modern map exhibiting such significant subdivisions."
One thing that was brought up over and over again was building an artist residency. Ultimately, this idea prevailed and this is exactly what Rabbit Island is today. "We have two small, sturdy structures that shelter artists for up to four weeks in the summer. Visiting artists contemplate their practice, create work, and leave a small conceptual mark on the place, and also on the wider society—writing, music, photography, painting, film. Over time a narrative is developing, yet the forest persists unchanged", Dr. Rob says. This juxtaposition is one of the project’s intentions. "To take an artist, who is the quintessential creator, and put him in a space that is completely raw and circumscribed, and say to him, what are you going to create and how are you not going to fuck up what's all around you–it’s a concept we can all relate to, wherever we are."
But Dr. Rob's real ambition is well beyond having a residency where artists and friends and can visit: He wants to start a movement of "Un-subdividing" with Rabbit Island standing as the first example. "If you look at the map of open space that is left, it is an insignificant fraction of what we began with, and shrinking. As with the original National Park example, the profound value of foresight is obvious in these places, yet the competition for them is immense and market forces favor profiting from division. I believe, however, that few things can outclass wilderness as a concept or fundamental value. On Rabbit Island we frequently cite the phrase ‘Wilderness is Civilization’. Land that is to remain undeveloped from this point forward in American history, after all, will be the result of conscientious human restraint, as opposed to simple oversight, or abundance. This distinction is major, and exemplifies the civilization of an educated people. There is no longer the fleeting promise of unlimited frontier. We are in a new present. I want to show how we might now act on these facts. Can we figure out how to recycle land sensibly as a community and re-organize maps on a larger scale?"
So what do you do? Dr. Rob is currently collaborating with Loveland Technologies, a Detroit based start-up that collects property data from municipal governments and provide them to internet users, and has bought all the GIS files of the Keweenaw Peninsula so that they can experiment with various ways of mapping, and, potentially, un-subdividing adjacent parcels of land.
"We are still at the tail-end of the artisanal movement, which is, to some degree, waning, and becoming a series of memes. It ran an interesting course and offered solutions for a lot of things, but they were often superficial. What I am trying to do is create a project on a larger social scale. Is it an advancement of Land Art, or social practice art? Ultimately I don’t think it matters. Underling it is a recognition that the existence of the internet, data aggregation, biology, and the recently available global satellite perspective of our environment, leads us to ethical conclusions that are necessarily different than they were before these tools arrived. With Rabbit Island it is my intention to make the case–in theory and practice–that large scale land decisions need to swing in a new direction and exhibit an understanding of new rules. "