Notes on Plot

When it comes to breadth and versatility of meaning, the word “plot” covers a lot of ground. Plot, for example, can be physically defined: a plot of land, a deeded plot (which infers ownership), a garden plot (in which space is distinguished by its usefulness), or a cordoned-off space (which indicates specialness of some kind). “Plot” is also temporally focused. The plot of a narrative—be it a movie, play, novel, or CW teen drama—advances the spectator forward in time; the plot serves as a chronological map that orders the audience’s experience. Consider also the ways in which plotting can organize space and time simultaneously; when we plot points on a map or graph, we draw together disparate data points in order see otherwise muddled or hidden connections.

As you read through the Dilettante Army’s Winter 2018 issue, you’ll find that our six contributors engage with the all of these concepts of plot. The pieces presented here are connected by the fact that plotting, in all of its many iterations, is a way of organizing meaning, of persuading ourselves of an overarching narrative, of systematizing knowledge. Each part has its themes extended and pieced together in images (in ways that never seem to quite fit?) by Plot’s illustrating cartographer, Daniel Mantilla.

The first essay in this issue, chronologically speaking, concerns sixteenth-century Italy, the plot of the Mannerist garden, and, what was, at the time, a new type of narrative device: the fountain. In “Plots in Gardens,” Laura Tradii walks us through the gardens of the Villa d’Este. The gardens were a creation of a cardinal who wished to be a pope, and they were designed to move the visitor through symbolic narratives of temporal power and spiritual mythology using a series of elaborate water features. This meticulous world-building project created an aristocratic estate through which the owner became the Creator of his family legacy–a god in his own right.

Speaking of divine comedies, Rebecca Ariel Porte’s essay “A Lost Plot: Paradise,” engages with a rich history of the paradisiacal imaginary and a dizzying list of walled gardens: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, Emmanuel Levinas’s novel-as-prison yard, the Islamic charbagh, and J.M.W. Turner’s sketches of Milton’s Paradise Lost. We imagine these better poetic realms based on the thick connection we have to our own, and so the question remains: what does it take to imagine an ideal world? At stake for Porte are the way we make sense of the land by partitioning it and our foundational ideas of property and ownership. As she says, “Whose is the plot and who gets to call it a plot?”

Rowland Ricketts’s photo essay, “Seeds,” explores his own relationship to the land and its history on his indigo farm in Monroe County, Indiana. Rather than overlaying artifice onto nature, Ricketts aims to pull meaning from beneath. His photo series illustrates the ways in which people have claimed ownership of his farm through instruments like GIS data, tree lines, and the objects past residents have left buried there. Since he and his wife Chinami started tilling the land in 2009, they have unearthed a heap of treasures and trinkets, including two atlatl points (darts from spear-throwers that predate arrowheads in the archeological record) that are estimated to be between 3000 and 5000 years old. Ricketts’s project is deeply involved with issues of land use, land stewardship, and land ownership.  

In “Virtual Burial Plots,” Kelly Christian’s interview with Jed Brubaker, Christian and Brubaker consider personal histories and legacies on the internet. Brubaker, a researcher and an academic partner with Facebook, has worked to design Facebook’s “legacy pages”: the memorializing pages that maintain users’ Facebook presences after their deaths. “Virtual Burial Plots” not only extends the map of deeded plots into virtual space, it also anticipates the ethical questions regarding data ownership and usage that will soon become even more pressing. As the first generation with an online presence ages and dies, companies that own personal data (and those of us from whom it’s harvested) must wrestle with the question of what happens to our postmortem information.

If “Virtual Burial Plots” already feels somewhat sinister, Jenny Chen’s ekphrastic poem “Black Cloud” moves us further into the world of conspiracy and deception. Prompted by Sarah Anne Johnson’s 2008 painting Black Cloud (currently on view at the Met Breuer in the exhibition “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy”), Chen muses on memory, grief, and the menacing threat of the US government. Sarah Anne Johnson’s grandmother, Velma Orlikow, was an unwitting subject in MKUltra, the experimental, CIA-backed mind-control program that ran from roughly 1953 until 1973. After documentation of the experiments was uncovered, the project came to public light during a 1977 Joint Hearing in the US Senate. But Sarah Anne Johnson’s private grief for her grandmother dominates her painting—an individual, intimate harm done by a large and bureaucratic plot. Jenny Chen’s poem focuses on the black cloud that obscures the painted woman’s head, an unnerving threat that moves into her own memories.

The final piece of the plot is Caroline Sinders’s “Making Critical, Ethical Software.” In her essay, Sinders provides an overview of her project Feminist Data Set. Feminist Data Set aims to take control of data that is generally captured from users and then hidden by the governments and large corporations that claim proprietary ownership. Sinders’s goal is to build a data set as protest against this, minimizing bias by transparently and ethically sourcing data about feminism that is contributed by participants in workshops she holds around the world. Sinders is mapping territory, plotting a narrative, and building new boundaries.

As Rebecca Ariel Porte says in her essay, “walls are not unilaterally or necessarily wicked.” We have inherited a great deal of knowledge that’s built on an unethical framework, on badly mapped land; but knowledge without a framework at all is just as bad. Boundaries and the lines we draw between them allow ideas to move around, to find new directions, and to build something new and more equitable.