A Circle Whose Center is Everywhere
BY COOPER DART
THE FIRST POINT IS LOCATED HALFWAY BETWEEN THE CENTER OF THE WALL AND THE MIDPOINT OF THE RIGHT SIDE.
In August of 1974, Alaskans voted in favor of building an entirely new capital city from the ground-up on an undetermined plot of government land which the ballot measure specified would not be too close to Anchorage but also not too close to Fairbanks. The city would not sprawl. The city would not sink into the permafrost. The city, instead, would be spectacular. It would house 30,000 people. It would be built in the image of Alaska’s future—not in a gaudy and chrome manner but in a practical, snowmobile-trails-for-streets manner. It would be hewn from wooden beams. The governor appointed members to a Capital Site Selection Committee and sent them out into the brush.
It is widely understood that a capital city should be located in the center of the territory it governs, yet centrality can be understood in numerous ways. Geographic centrality is one, of course. (Indianapolis, for example, was literally built at the center of an X drawn from each of the four corners of Indiana). But geographic centrality neglects population distributions, and economic networks, and trans-border interactions with neighbors. What is ‘central’ is much more dynamic than geography implies. In fact, 42 out of the 50 states have had more than one capital city since their founding. As people move, so does what’s between them.
In August of 1974, Alaskans asked for a more central capital. Juneau, the quaint capital city with its back against a glacier and toes in the sea, could only be accessed by plane or boat. And as oil development expanded northwest into the interior, Juneau became more and more impractical for the majority of Alaskans. Fairbanks campaigned against an Anchorage capital, and Anchorage did the same for Fairbanks. Neither wanted the other to grow more influential. So they decided to meet elsewhere—the middle.
THE TENTH POINT IS EQUIDISTANT FROM THE NINTH POINT, THE THIRD POINT AND THE MIDPOINT OF THE TOP SIDE.
I’ve only seen Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing 305” once, well over five years ago at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s one of his famous geometric works, drawn in pencil on a plain white background. “Wall Drawing 305” is huge—floor to ceiling—a big white rectangle with lines and arcs connecting 100 small bold X’s. Each point is accompanied by a short description of the geometric reasoning behind its placement.
LeWitt didn’t actually draw the piece himself, as is true with many of his wall drawings. Rather, he provided the written instructions for drafters to fill the space—where each point was to be laid out in relation to the proportions of the wall, and in what order. The work reckons with edges, intersections, corners, and centers. Because of this, “Wall Drawing 305” falls under his family of work called “location” drawings.
On the wall, each point’s description is written in the present tense, even though there was a specified order to their creation, and even though they were created sequentially. As with any work of art, some of it existed before the rest. I traced their order the best I could.
LeWitt once wrote there are ways of using language to describe a precise location, like geography. I think of [the instructions] as my poetry.
A poetics of place. Or, a poetics of placement.
The first essay I published swung through many different landscapes, enough so that I wanted to include a map with every location in the story to keep the reader oriented. In a workshop on an early draft of the piece, the only question I asked was if my classmates knew where they were being taken as they read.
What I wanted to get at in the essay was the rural anxiety of lives barely held together. It was a youthful response to my feeling that nothing really bad had happened to me or the people with whom I grew up in Idaho, but I felt like it should have. My friends and I hurt ourselves, but never too much. We kept getting away with things. I couldn’t help but imagine what would have happened if our close calls had gone differently.
A group of us from college were on a Maine farm when we learned that our friend had passed away. Or, rather, not a farm but a second home on a large plot of mowed land that the owners had decided would become a farm in the future. The near future. Near enough that they’d already placed a sign with the word “farm” at the end of their pocked dirt road. We left the house in waves into an October we didn’t recognize and drove north.
We sat in a college dorm room with our mouths open. Calls were made. I flipped through a coffee table book until I found the line I think everyone is just trying to get home and then I closed it. Above us on a TV the Roku screensaver scrolled back and forth across a cartoon aquarium. Above us higher were clouds that a weather alert said held two to three inches of rain. The screensaver scrolled back and forth. Coral. Fish. An eel in a little cave. It astounded me that this was how someone spent their time on Earth, animating fish for kids to stare at after their friend had died. I couldn’t look away.
Returning to my apartment that night I found my hyacinth in bloom leaning toward the window, toward the dense ice in the bay, toward the white gables white gables white gables down Washington Avenue. I stared at the ceiling of my kitchen. Kerouac came to mind: I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October.
The Capital Site Selection Committee returned to the governor with maps. On the maps were three X’s: Willow, Larson Lake, and Mt. Yenlo. All the potential sites were in the Southcentral Cook Inlet region of Alaska, located north and inland from coastal Anchorage. The Committee noted that all the sites were essentially equal in their developability yet provided “clearly different options to the Alaskan voter.” The Willow site was closest to Anchorage and would present the lowest cost of development; Larson Lake had the most striking natural and scenic features; Mt. Yenlo would encourage development in the potentially resource-rich and yet-undeveloped Susitna Valley.
In 1976 Alaskans voted among the Committee’s options to choose the new middle of their state. They chose Willow. At the time of the vote, the area had twenty-four houses—only fourteen with indoor bathrooms. Willow’s few residents woke the morning after the election to skyrocketing property values and a San Francisco-based architecture firm drawing lines around them from a tall building near a bay far, far away.
Space is best understood as a process as opposed to an absolute or preexisting object, writes anthropologist Sandhya Ganapathy. She’s not referring to outer space, no, though both spaces are systems, yes, processes in their own right. The avenue outside my window is a process. The avenue is not absolute. I sat in my apartment as the first inch of rain fell, then the second. Below, I saw an old Volvo sedan, a mutt, a shadow of a hyacinth from a second-floor window.
THE FORTY-FOURTH POINT IS LOCATED WHERE A LINE DRAWN FROM THE THIRTY-FOURTH POINT THROUGH THE FIRST POINT WOULD CROSS A LINE FROM THE THIRTY-FIFTH POINT TO A POINT HALFWAY THROUGH THE MIDPOINT OF THE RIGHT SIDE AND THE LOWER RIGHT CORNER.
LeWitt’s instructions in “Wall Drawing 305” grow increasingly contrived—becoming paragraphs in length, reducing space, finding the middle of the middle of the middle. Intersections. Meetings. “Wall Drawing 305” becomes a massive essay desperately attempting to justify itself.
Then, turning a corner at MASS MoCA, there’s the refreshing simplicity of “Wall Drawing 51”—a piece LeWitt instructed would connect all architectural points on the wall with straight blue lines. Everything to everything else, a network from an outlet to a ceiling corner to the molding of a fireplace to a light switch. The result is an emphatic testimony to place and connection—here, the wall says, I am here, and this is how I arrived. “Wall Drawing 51,” like 305, is a map by any definition of the word.
The piece has been repeated through dozens of galleries around the world, each on different walls with different features, each then necessarily unique. Though they are all different, and all drawn by different drafters, all of them are titled “Wall Drawing 51.” All are by Sol LeWitt.
Artist Harry Dodge told Maggie Nelson that in a real, material sense, what is made from where. Maybe asking what remains can only go so far before we’re forced to ask where remains.
Here, LeWitt says from hundreds of walls around the world, here. We met at a Red Robin on Halloween—the day after we received the news. I slid into the booth. I wasn’t hungry but I knew I should eat. Football played on the TV and we ordered bottomless fries and lemonades. We were mostly quiet. A waitress dressed as a pirate brought us our burgers and we couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. Before closing, her son showed up in a superhero costume and jumped on a chair to tell us his plan for trick-or-treating. He gave us high-fives and we told him to protect the town for us. The tail of the month hummed in the air. We met at the Red Robin because we didn’t know where else to go but we knew we needed to see each other.
Two weeks later, another phone call. Another blurry drive north. When I started the car, my phone automatically connected to the speakers and started playing the outro of a Tyler, the Creator song. Filling my windshield of northern darkness, a voice caught between astonishment and indifference: my November is right now.
THE FIFTY-SEVENTH POINT IS LOCATED HALFWAY BETWEEN THE NINTH POINT AND A POINT HALFWAY BETWEEN THE NINTH POINT AND THE FORTY-FOURTH POINT.
Willow’s drafters drew great buildings with wooden beams and gaping windows. They drew covered arcades to circulate pedestrians indoors, protected from the Arctic flurries. There was a high school, a bridge, a greenway. A grand commons centered the government offices and capitol. In the architects’ drawings, cartoonish Alaskans stand among a great imagined hall discussing life and its inherent movement. They are wearing suits, the Alaskans that were to live in Willow, along the railbelt in the Matanuska Valley. They look each other in the colored-pencil eyes.
The plans were meant to combat Alaska’s harsh climate and issues with mental illness and substance abuse. As Atlantic journalist David Littlejohn wrote, this was, indeed, existential architecture. Alaska finally came together in those drawings. There is a lot of hope in the drafts—hope that meeting in the middle would be enough for salvation.
LeWitt famously wrote each person draws a line differently and each person understands words differently. He acknowledges that his art drawn by drafters, even with the mind-numbing intricacies of many of his instructions and diagrams, is random. “Wall Drawing 305” is a map of random points. A map of points where one person said they should be, and where another placed them.
THE SIXTY-SEVENTH POINT IS LOCATED AS FAR TOWARD THE FOURTH POINT AS I CAN REACH WHILE KEEPING MY LEFT SHOULDER AT THE FIFTH POINT.
Later that November, I went to one of the few clubs in Portland, Maine. I met some friends from a summer job and we danced between shots at the cash bar. The club used to be an antique shop, and dusty dolls and trinkets still covered the walls. TVs played grainy ’80s music videos above our heads.
I walked home with a friend and we went to a cafe in the morning. I told her about my dead friends over cappuccinos. We walked around backstreets. We toed at a moldy lemon on the sidewalk and she told me she was going to farm out in New Mexico for a couple months and asked if I wanted to come. It’s in the middle of nowhere. I chewed on the impossibility of the phrase. The middle of nowhere. I told her I’d think about it. The next day she texted “are you actually interested?” which I truthfully never was.
A voice: What’s your November? Is it a person?
I told my friend Josie that it felt like November didn’t exist this year. Still, we all wrapped ourselves in the gray of the season and kept meeting. We met in parking lots, at the tennis courts by the ocean, at the remodeled cafe caught between the bad brewery and the field filled with decaying military chemicals. We met in cars parked on the street and spoke of love in uncertain terms. We drank beers outside and talked about those we’d lost. We drank beers outside and talked about anything else.
Hundreds of us gathered at the end of the month in an empty farm field in Brunswick. Fiddle music shook the oak tree over the podium. Folks took turns at the microphone. I saw some people I hadn’t seen in years. We hugged and made each other’s shoulders wet.
I went back home to Idaho over the holidays and drove to the end of a canyon and then turned around. I went to the burger joint near the rodeo grounds. Snowbunny Drive-In: “Home of the Roadkill Pattymelt.” That November often felt like roadkill. Meeting my friends in the middle often felt less like a reunion and more like a collision. Not violent, but abrupt and unavoidable.
I spent eight dollars and left a tip, eying the dusty steel freezers in the back. As I waited for my burger I thought of my bones. I thought of how tragic it is that two objects can get infinitely close to each other without actually touching.
Willow was about bodies—all of our bodies. How brave it would be to find each other, our bodies. All of them, warm and together again.
An unknown philosopher once wrote that God can be imagined as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. The image is endlessly complex to imagine, which is the beauty of it, I assume. The first time I read this I lost myself in the fact that it might not be the circle that contained us, but the center. It would be one thing to be bound by a ring—another altogether to be bound by a dimensionless point that tells us we are all, unequivocally, at the middle.
THE ONE HUNDRED AND FIRST POINT IS NOVEMBER.
Willow doesn’t exist. In the early 1980s, Alaskans voted down a ballot measure to approve the $2.8 billion needed to construct the city. Juneau remains the capital. Defenders of Juneau’s status ask if centrally-located capitals are even relevant today, in the digital age. How obsolete is in-person political accountability? Historian Wolfgang Sonne reminds us that capital cities, with their seemingly inviolable status, and the acceptance of their quasi-necessity are part of a policy of “inventing traditions” to create and promote national unity. And I was inclined to agree—capitals might just be something we tell ourselves we need.
Then I spent a November finding the middle anywhere I could. This time, I actually did make a map of the story, marking the dorm room where we first gathered that rainy night, the Red Robin, the beach, the café, the moldy lemon. The farm, the club. The month, the microphone, the teary phone calls from basements. I looked at the map, hoping to find some sort of shape to write meaning over, but instead I found a mess of random points. Perhaps the poetics was in the placement. Perhaps there can be no mathematics of death because the dead are a god whose center is everywhere.
My senior year of college, I presented a research project proposal to my environmental studies seminar. I told the class that I wished to investigate how Alaska and Alaskans engaged with urban life in the largely remote, rural, and young state, using the capital move initiative as a case study. What can the initiative tell us about how Alaskans imagine Alaska and the Alaskan landscape? What role does (or, should) urban life play in such a remote state?
When I was done, a classmate raised their hand and asked, simply, why Alaska? Which was a fair question. Like Willow’s planners, I wasn’t from there. Nor had I ever been there. But as I stood before the class I thought of all the dizzy practical impossible hope to be found in Willow’s plans. All the courage needed to ask for a place new and near. I thought of those living in Willow’s twenty-four homes, fourteen with indoor bathrooms, and the ways their lives connected to the lives of the state. We spend so much time with so much between us.
If LeWitt were asked why Alaska? he might have responded with each person draws a line differently. Or he might have shown his cut photograph “The Area of Manhattan Between the Places I Have Lived Is Removed”—a map of sorts, a cityscape of sorts. Or he might have brought the class to see “Wall Drawing 305” and gestured, never one for speaking, at the twenty-first point.
THE TWENTY-FIRST POINT IS LOCATED AT THE CENTER OF THE WALL.
Along my city’s sidewalks, the soil of winter gardens is cracking open. Why Alaska? Because somewhere not too far from here there’s a nightclub filled with all of our friends, their bodies (our bodies) dancing among a spring of what’s left.