11 May 2024

A Device for Crushing

In the desert, Ann Haeyoung
interrogates progress


by Kate Mothes

Since the 19th century, the concept of terra nullius, or “nobody’s land,” has been applied in international law to justify claims that territory may be acquired if or when a state occupies it. During Western colonial expansion, colonizers asserted the principle to erase claims that existing inhabitants had to certain areas, creating “a conceptual void in the colonial imagination,” artist Ann Haeyoung says. The definition of settled and cultivated land transformed into that which was “empty, underutilized, and awaiting ‘civilized’ development,” she adds. “It is a term that has distinguished invasion from settlement.”

Haeyoung’s practice is rooted in the places she lives and works—currently, Roswell, New Mexico—drawing on her experiences, perceptions, and occasional misconceptions about regions, ecosystems, or communities. “Before moving to Roswell, I had only experienced deserts as a tourist or traveler passing through briefly,” she says. “My impression of deserts was that they are empty, barren places with little life, human or otherwise. What I realized on arriving in New Mexico is how lively and fecund the desert actually is.”

The desert and the surrounds of Roswell, encapsulating its industry and varied overlapping histories, lends itself to Haeyoung’s most recent body of work, terra nullius. The artist considers both the principle in practice throughout Western history and as a relative of frontier ideology—including the myth of the American West, in particular, as a romanticized land of possibility at the edge of civilization, ripe with opportunity for those ambitious enough to seek it. Haeyoung asserts a more stark definition that continues to pervade today’s attitudes: “The frontier and empty lands beyond it are not physical places. They are the promise of endless extraction of resources and infinite expansion of markets.”

Haeyoung investigates the human presence in the land and the large-scale, industrial impact on the land, environment, and local communities. Her large-scale installations, multi-media works, and kinetic sculptures mirror the landscape and the tensions or contradictions that emerge when it is shaped for human use or extraction. The artist’s work is sometimes analog and stationary; other times it is digital and time-based. “I take my visual cues from science fiction and horror, and use the inefficient, grotesque, and surreal to counteract dominant narratives of technological progress and neoliberal futurity,” she says

In terra nullius, a room full of speakers emits sounds of local wildlife resembles a field of satellite dishes, completely removed from the natural environment and evocative of the contrast between endemic flora and fauna and stark, industrial, human-built structures. A video work titled The Transit of Venus, takes the form of a view from through a telescope, in particular one used by James Cook and the crew of the Endeavor, as it reflects on its role in history.

“I am interested in the way bodies and landscapes are disabled, distorted, and hybridized in the name of efficiency and progress,” Haeyoung says. She is also working on two archiving projects: firstly, a collaboration with San Francisco State University to archive interviews the artist conducted as part of her research into the IBM Black Workers Alliance. She is also working with archive.org to archive panel discussions from a teach-in she organized with the Tech Workers Coalition.

Find more on Haeyoung’s website and Instagram.

All images © Ann Haeyoung

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