In her fascinating work America Ponds, Sarah Kanouse inhabits a unique version of the character of the explorer. This artist’s version of a naturalist is distinct in that one has “a skewed vision of what that world might be, one that is not presented as Edenic landscape or wilderness but a landscape that is deeply imbricated with the human and the industrial—to look at it is to look at ourselves.”
America Ponds tells the story of a small piece of land in southern Illinois, the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to being a wildlife refuge and recreation space for the public, it houses munitions factories and was declared a Superfund site and placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List in the 1980s.
Over the years, various facilities at Crab Orchard have produced highlighter pens, furniture, car parts, and more. Today, General Dynamics, a multibillion-dollar defense company, has multiple factories on-site, where they make ammunition. Photography inside the boundaries of the refuge is restricted to points of interest designated by the Fish and Game Department.
Unable to photograph or film there without permission, Kanouse found alternative ways to make her research on the place and its history available to the local community, using sound as a strategy to reveal the complex nature of the refuge. Her audio tour slyly navigates the space and educates listeners about its history as a mixed-use landscape.
By appropriating the marketing tools of tourism—manufacturing a tour, creating an audio guide—artists like Kanouse can present a different interpretation of landscape and create new narratives for audiences. In the case of Crab Orchard, the government presents one interpretation of the refuge while Kanouse’s audio tour offers her audience an alternative one.
With its marsh, walking trails, and viewing stations, Crab Orchard was designed by the government to “look” like nature, promote the idea of nature as protected, and in a symbiotic relationship between conservation and recreation.
America Ponds provides a different perspective by revealing the complex interrelationship of industry and open space. The audio tour allows listeners to consider more deeply what constitutes a “wildlife refuge” and how we define “nature” in present-day culture.
“A space of conservation lets everything else go on as usual,” Kanouse declares. Basically, in order to define nature as a place that needs protection, you need to have a few strip malls nearby. The duality of protection and development still dominates representations of the American landscape, but as more artists engage in critiques of its use—as America Ponds does—perhaps this dynamic will shift.