when is a boulder not ok?
Originally appeared as a self-published zine, 2023
It was a not-too-cold night in late October, and I was walking around at dusk in a corridor of Portland between the I-405 and the Willamette River, looking for a Jamaican restaurant that didn’t exist. I was young and with a boy I liked. He was from the east coast and wore a hand-sewn satchel under his down jacket to hold stacks of ephemera that he would anonymously distribute everywhere he went. He composed what he called ‘free write me books’ a form of public art that consisted of short stories (somewhat true) about people and places that he knew and loved—3 pictures, 3 paragraphs, and a PO box to encourage readers to write back. One time I did write to him and that was part of how we met and ended up walking on this particular night, searching for a meal that would remind him of home.
After about an hour of following hunches, we ended up hungry in front of a Whole Foods. We gave up the search and settled for a picnic of havarti, apples, and bread under the closest grove of trees. We weren’t disappointed; we had pocket knives and a few napkins and there was a thrill to just finding each other and a little free space in the city to improvise our open air dinner. We sat on a small triangle of hard-packed dirt tucked above the cut of the four-lane freeway. The cedars there held the hum of the road and caught cones of car light in their branches. I don’t remember a no trespassing sign, but maybe there was one. I don’t remember what we talked about. I do remember, despite protests, slipping a fold of dollar bills for dinner into the pocket of his coat as we left. It was the first of many meals we’d share together over the next 17 years.
Since that night, our lives and neighborhoods have changed. We move through the city differently now, but still pass by that dinner spot and feel fondly for how easy it was then to find an in-between space—a pocket amidst the cement order of streets and buildings and traffic. Many times out on errands or walks we’ve seen other people and animals using the same spot too: resting or congregating, squatting to pee, eating, storing food, or pitching a tent and sleeping.
Sometime in the 2010s, a chain-link fence went up around the perimeter, enclosing most of it and hindering human access. Now, behind the chain link, the cedar trees stand choked amidst a carpet of boulders, the irregular stones are tetris’d tightly together and secured to the ground with a thick layer of pasty gray cement. The boulders almost all come to a point, rarely a flat top rock among them.
This triangle is now a site of one of the city’s many boulder fields—a form of defensive design used to keep folks from using certain spaces. Boulders have been proliferating in Portland since 2013 when the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) chose this strategy as a way of dealing with the problems of camping along the roads that they manage. Since that time, ODOT has spent over $1 million to place boulders on plots of land all throughout the city.1 The one-time cost of installing a rock field is an investment in not having to repeatedly pay to clear the remnants of the lives of people who have been underserved by a system that prioritizes and protects private property.2 The boulders are very successful in what they set out to do, but they, of course, do nothing to address the needs of people who have nowhere else to go. ODOT and the City “don’t directly track the outcomes for people removed from camps;”3 so how can they responsibly or thoroughly assess the impact of these interventions on people or the living environments in which they are placed?
In a 1964 speech, Malcolm X criticized the myths that had grown up around the settling of the US. He spoke about the experience of Black Americans, those who survived the Transatlantic slave trade and their descendants, saying: “We didn’t land on Plymouth rock, it was landed on us.”4 Coming to a rock in need is different than having one landed on you. You might crave a boulder at your back when the wind is blowing too hard. You might clamber atop one to overcome the disadvantage of being small or to avoid a rising tide. But in Malcolm X’s speech and in our city, rocks are doing something else. They have become silent weapons, both blatantly hostile and problematically acceptable, landed in groups on sites where people used to sleep and eat.
Sometimes when walking, I think about the phrase under the pavement, the beach.5 Or in Portland, under the pavement, the forest. I love the places in the city where the forest pops through, where despite the management and control, that wild sponginess of the rainforest is there. The places where we allow the world to be absorbent are becoming more rare. I wonder about the repercussions of creating more impermeability in our urban zones. There will be less ground for birds, squirrels, and wandering seeds. There will be more run-off and more of the city’s residue coursing through rainwater and draining into creeks and rivers. I think about the impervious weight and the soundless permanence of a 4-foot stone pasted to the ground in relation to my soft and wrinkling skin.
In a discussion of their book Unpleasant Design Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić point out how these kinds of designs “unlike interactions with security guards or police officers…are non-negotiable. Their permanence is definitive and uncompromising, baked into the built environment in a way that is hard to argue against or reverse.”6 While interactions with guard labor of any kind can be rife with problems and especially dangerous for black and brown people, those experiencing houselessness or those dealing with mental health issues, there is still a chance for discussion and possibly for understanding—for people in positions of power to overcome their role and respond with more empathy than a rock could.
The ODOT boulder fields are just the most prominent example, but these kinds of antagonistic additions are cropping up all over the city. Smaller strategically placed rocks, concrete planters, high-pitched noises broadcast street-side, and other obstructions litter parking strips, and line sidewalks and underpasses. They not only make our civic space less accessible (especially for the most vulnerable), but they limit opportunities for social interaction. You can’t argue with a rock.7
While these smaller forms of hostile architecture alter the urban landscape, these rocked over areas are landscapes themselves. They mimic naturally occurring boulder fields, which are thought to be have been formed over thousands of years as a result of receding glaciers and processes of frost-heave, weathering, and erosion.
These un-authored geological acts happen on a scale beyond the human, evoking a sense of wonder and mystery when we stand before them. Portland’s boulder fields seem to attempt that effect as well. The effort that it took to unearth, lift, move, and place all that heavy stone is palpable, but the actual process of design and construction is obscured. We don’t get to hear what took place in the boardrooms where these installations were approved. We don’t think first of the people or machinery that harvested and laid the stone. Instead, we just see the massive scale and the way the rough gray stones repeat their irregular geometry in monochrome one after the other, smashed so close together that they almost interlock and eliminate any possibility of accessing grass or soil. They take up all the available space, so thorough and so thoroughly lacking in tenderness.
Because of all this—their materiality and scale, their unattributed authorship, their silence, and somber naturalism—they seem to masquerade as monuments or site-specific land art. This is what I find especially intriguing and repulsive about them. Maybe in the far future these arrangements of rocks will be interpreted in different ways, they could hold the mystery of a site like Stonehenge, but regardless, right now their aesthetic association to monumental sculpture is a way of disguising a form of state-sanctioned violence and enclosure. This feels akin to the way that art has historically been used as an optical purifier by corporations or individuals who want to improve their reputations.8
When I look at the boulder fields I see aspects of the creative interventions made in the landscape of the American Southwest by (mostly white male) artists in the 1960s and 70s. They echo the harshness of Michael Heizer’s work, the terraforming of Robert Smithson; and (though it’s not technically land art) the intimidating presence of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. A more direct material comparison might be with stone field sculpture, a work of public art designed by Carl Andre, which was commissioned by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the National Endowment for the Arts. It was installed in downtown Hartford in 1977 and consists of thirty-six boulders arranged in rows in grassy lot right across from the Wadsworth Atheneum, the oldest public art museum in the country
According to Andre, the rocks were supposed to reflect the gravestones in the neighboring cemetery and the geological roots of what lay on the land prior to the settling of the city of Hartford in 1635. His sculpture has long been controversial. Many were underwhelmed by the project. Some thought that it wasn’t enough or that it wasn’t finished, that Andre must be returning to sculpt or add to the boulders, as if they were only pedestals for forthcoming works. But, there was nothing to add. Andre’s rocks were just rocks. The public’s generalized criticism was that the piece was too expensive. It also didn’t have the symbolic content that many viewers expected from something called Art.
Unlike Andre’s public sculpture, Portland’s stone fields do work symbolically as well as stand as literal barriers to the people who might use the space to improvise a meal or a houseless life. They collapse the real and the represented into one city-sanctioned NO. Given their spacious arrangement and location, Andre’s boulders actually offer some YES space that feels semi-protected. (Space for conviviality, for picnics, or space for my teenaged partner to hang with his friends and smoke pot.)
stone field sculpture was made parallel to the tombstones of an adjacent graveyard; Portland’s boulder fields feel like they parallel the strategies of contemporary art and design to transform the city’s liminal spaces into inaccessible tombs themselves, like some warped commemoration of the slow death of public space.
At the same time that ODOT is creating their own stone field sculptures around Portland, the City has also been engaged in a dialogue about its public art, monuments, and memorials. Citizens and institutions are questioning the worth of public statues that affirm white supremacy and uphold narrow readings of our collective history. City officials, artists, and others are making determinations about what to do with monuments that were toppled in the waves of demonstration that followed the murder of George Floyd and in relation to the Indigenous People’s Day of Rage. The Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Public Art Committee recently proposed a new policy in accordance with the City’s value of anti-racism: “[public artworks can be removed if the] subject or impact of an artwork is significantly at odds with values of antiracism, equity, and inclusion.”9 These changes are vital and heartening and though ODOT’s bouldered sites aren’t widely considered to be monumental artworks, they clearly borrow from that visual history.
What if we borrowed back? What if we applied the ethical and social values inherent in this new assessment of our public sculpture to the project of re-thinking these boulder fields? We look to public art to make a city more hospitable, to engage people’s minds and spirits, to represent the values of diverse communities, and, in the case of a monument or memorial, to hold and elicit memories of what has come before. If we imagined these boulder fields as unfinished monuments (as if we were the unimpressed viewers of Carl Andre’s sculpture), what kinds of generative or functional interventions might we make there? What kinds of affective, aesthetic, or essential services could these stones provide? If not shelter, then what?
1. Diana Kruzman. “Homeless Campers Face a New Obstacle Along Portland Roadways…” Oregon Live, July 4th, 2019. See more at:
2. For more on the destructive effect of sweeps see the reporting of Alex Zielinski, specifically: “Uprooted and Unhoused” Portland Mercury, July 7th, 2022. https://www.portlandmercury.com/news/2022/07/15/44219943/uprooted-and-unhoused
3. Diana Kruzman.“Homeless Campers Face a New Obstacle Along Portland Roadways…” Oregon Live, July 4th, 2019.
4. Malcolm X, Audobon Address. Washington Heights, NY. March 29,1964.
5. Under the pavement, the beach. Situationist movement graffiti from Paris, May 1968.
6. Roman Mars, 99% Invisible, Episode 219: “Unpleasant Design and Hostile Urban Architecture.” July 5th, 2016. https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/unpleasant-design-hostile-urban-architecture/transcript/
7. It reminds me of a book I read as a child by William Steig about a donkey named Sylvester who finds a magic pebble that grants him wishes. In an effort to hide from an approaching lion, he wishes to be a rock. Only when he transforms into a boulder does he realize that he can’t very well hold his pebble and wish himself back to his prior form. As the pebble rolls to the ground, he is severed from his mobility, his voice, his family, and his home. A boulder is being used as a defense tactic in this story too, and it has disastrous, silent consequences. It saves Sylvester from the danger of the lion, but separates him from all that he loves. Lonely, he sits through the changing seasons while his parents look for him without success. They even enlist the help of the police, whose piggish rendering and inability to solve the case of Sylvester’s disappearance got the book banned in 1977 for being anti-police. It’s only by the magic of coincidence (or some other unspoken mysterious magnetism like love) that he is reunited with his parents as they are out for a picnic and find the magic pebble in the same clearing where he has been sitting as a rock for so long.
8. Akin to how the Rockefellers used their heavy philanthropy in the arts to obscure their relation to the weapons industry and the war in Vietnam.
9. See more at www.racc.org/2021/09/28/next-steps-for-toppled-and-removed-monuments-faq/
Carl Andre’s stone field sculpture image from https://www.publicartct.org
Image via http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/cs/groups/public/documents/document/dcnr_004626.pdf