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"Mediating Mountains": AAAS Conference Report - Lib AAC
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"Mediating Mountains": AAAS Conference Report

Janick Entremont, Panorama of Innsbruck

Photo: Janick Entremont - Panorama of Innsbruck.CC BY-SA 4.0

From November 22 - 24, the Austrian Association for American Studies (AAAS) held their annual meeting at the University of Innsbruck and invited speakers from Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, and the US to discuss the conference's topic "Mediating Mountains" from various perspectives. Set in the Alpine region of Tyrol, Innsbruck served as the perfect background to explore the many "guises" in which mountains "confront" us, as the organizers stated in their CFP for the conference. Nearly seventy scholars were invited to engage in lively discussions throughout the weekend. In the face of the global climate crisis, the tone of many talks and conversations carried more urgency. Thus, ecocriticism and the critique of the Anthropocene were important undercurrants of this conference.

The title was well chosen for this conference as it can be read in two ways: 1) "Mediating Mountains," i.e. how mountains are mediated by other means such as film, literature, or photography, and 2) "Mediating Mountains," i.e. how mountains' physical and abstract presence mediates our way of thinking about nature, the environment, or history. Having these two interrelated perspectives of how mountains shape our reality opened up the floor for many interdisciplinary discussions.

The Keynotes

Three keynotes explored the way in which mountains are framed and utilized in visual culture, yet placed their respective examples within different historical, ideological, and experiential contexts, thus covering much more ground than their primary texts. Jennifer Peterson, Chair of the Department of Communication at Woodbury University, gave her keynote lecture “Highroads and Skyroads: Cinematic Mountains and the US National Park Service” on Friday afternoon. During her talk, she traced the evolution of the concepts of wilderness, modernity, and the Anthropocene with regards to mountains by analyzing and historicizing informational films about US National Parks in the West that were produced by the US National Park Service and the US Department of the Interior during the 1920s and 1930s. Peterson convincingly outlined the influence of roadbuilding, auto-mobility, and fossil capitalism by framing these films within the dynamics of advertisement and ideas of ‘wilderness’ and recreation—ideas that only emerged outside of nature spaces. The material Peterson presented attested to the tenuous relationship between onscreen nature spaces promising recreation, nature, and freedom on the one hand, and the obsession with technology, mobility, and cars on the other. Promoting automobiles against the backdrop of great mountainous scenery, said Peterson, not only speaks to the historically grown dependence on technology but also to the creation and promotion of recreation in National Parks for the masses.

The effects of these promotional nature films were later illustrated in a screening of four silent films—among them Roads in Our National Parks (1927), Land of the Lofty Mountains (1936), and The Olympus Country (1936)—accompanied on piano by Gregor Blösl. It became clear how these films combined the story of opening up the land via roads with emotional and scenic visuals to create an affective American narrative of conquering the Western wilderness.

In his keynote lecture “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy: Two Landscapes of the Anthropocene 1970 and 2014,” Sean Cubitt, professor of Film and Television at Goldsmiths, University of London tries to think about imagination without romanticizing or pathologizing it in order to illustrate that the Anthropocene is a shared, participatory dystopian imagination that is always threatened by the tyranny of the present. By comparing two film adaptations of the traditional Chinese story Tracks in the Snowy Forest, Cubitt investigated how the way in which mountains are imagined on screen has changed over time and what these changes can tell us about the collective imaginary at two important points in time. He linked the CGI-technology of the 2014 movie by Tsui Hark back to the stage props and set paintings of the 1970 movie, in order to point to a continuation of a mechanism that constantly references mountains to imagine the mountains in their symbolic function as projection screens of a collective imagination. And this mechanism, Cubitt concluded, is relentlessly repeated in the Anthropocene.

The final keynote by Sascha Pöhlmann, titled “Thereness: Video Game Mountains as Limits of Interactivity,” concluded the official part of the conference on Sunday. Pöhlmann, who is interim Professor of North American Literature and Culture at the University of Konstanz, conceptualized the mediation of mountains with “thereness” which describes the experiential quality of mountains in video games. Using three mountain-centered games—Celeste (2018), Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017), and Mountain (2014)—he explained how mountains are employed in these games to invite and resist being engaged by humans. Interestingly, you can’t really play with the mountains in these games, nor do they serve as scenic backgrounds or pathos-driven metaphors. The fact that these games put limitations on the power-and-control mechanisms that players have become used to, not only elevates the existence of the mountains to an experience beyond ourselves, Pöhlmann argued, but also offers the opportunity to analyze underlying criticisms of power, consumerism, or social normativity that these limitations evoke.

The Panels

The great variety and quality of the seventeen panels substantiated the benefit of using mountain studies as a lens through which to approach, analyze, historicize, and negotiate North America. The sheer number of contributions and selected talks exemplifies the usefulness of this angle within the American Studies community in Austria, Germany, and beyond. Ranging from different disciplines such as film studies in the panel “Mountain Cinema” to musicology in “Mountains and Music” to social history in “Appalachia: Sacred Space and Spiritual Ecology,” the panel selection spoke to the breadth of scholarly engagement. Panels such as “Ecological Narratives,” “Mountains and Masculinity,” and “Mountains as Figures of Identity” exemplified the productivity of analyzing mountains to explore notions of genre, gender, or identity. Other crucial mountain-related aspects such as femininity, whiteness, American colonialism, the Native American genocide and adjoining considerations of racism, displacement, and social justice, were often implied in Q&As and discussions, yet were not part of the official program. To more fully make use of the academic productivity of mountain scholarship, extra effort should be put to encourage work in these areas.

The panel “Photographic Construction of Mountains” chaired by Ingrid Gessner (Vorarlberg) brought together four perspectives that negotiated mountain photography. Sabine Sielke’s (Bonn) “Revisiting Brokeback Mountain, or: How Mountains Matter” read mountains in Ang Lee’s 2005 film as liminal space for the transgression of norms in which the power of the imaginary—informed by the Western genre as much as by Melodrama—, the visual memory—informed by artists such as Ansel Adams, Edward Hopper, and William Eggleston—, and the repertoire of meaning that mountains symbolize come together to negotiate class, homosexuality, as well as the natural. In her talk “The Power of Collective Vision: Landscape, Visual Media, and the Production of American Mountains,” Danielle Raad (Amherst) reflected upon Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of the Premodern, the Modern, and the Postmodern to investigate how mountain images have been appropriated to fit national narratives, as exemplified by panoramas and stereoscopes. Special focus lay on the way personal experiences are mediated by preformulated images that often exclude alternative conceptions of landscape e.g. by Native Americans or African Americans. Hannah Zindel (Lüneburg) traced the historical impact of alpine ballooning in her talk “Aerial Alps: Balloon Photography and Mountain Modeling in the 19th Century.” She focused on the work of geologist Albert Heim and Eduard Spelterini, balloon captain and photographer, who embarked on numerous balloon flights across the Alps to improve cartography through photographs and reliefs. Ballooning, first undertaken to understand mountains better, facilitated the production of natural reliefs a craft that, as shown, is as much scientific as it is artistic. Discussing Barry Goldwater’s landscape photography of Arizona, Susann Köhler (Göttingen) investigated both of Goldwater’s personas—the politician and the amateur-photographer—in her talk “‘Down the Rugged Canyon Route’”. Reading the photographs against the backdrop of his political career and understanding how the two aspects intersect, shed light on the politics and aesthetics of this conservative politician.

“Building Mountains: Visual Landmarks and Narrative Functions,” the panel on architecture, was chaired by Robert Winkler (Gießen). Unfortunately, Sabrina Mittermeier (Augsburg) could not attend. Therefore, the panelists Julia Lange (Hamburg) and Wiebke Kartheus (Göttingen) were able to expand upon their talks a little bit more and left enough room for a lively discussion afterwards. In her talk “Taking Bauhaus to the Mountains: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Aspen Jet Set,” Lange delineated the history of Bauhaus architecture in the Rocky Mountains and illuminated the question of how Aspen—the mining town-turned-high-class-ski-resort—could become a Mekka for Modernist architecture. As so often in American local history, the vision of an individual, in this case William Paepcke, was the driving force behind a cultural phenomenon. Kartheus followed the trajectories of ongoing architecture projects at the Denver Art Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in her talk “From the Rocky Mountains to the Hollywood Hills” to explore how both institutions implement their surroundings to narrate themselves, their collections, as well as their communities. Pre-formulated imaginaries, she argued, that are activated by the collections themselves or broadly-disseminated images in the media are called-upon by the art museums to place them within the American West, whose art tradition is not as well-established as in the the Eastern part of the country.

During the last session on Sunday morning, the panel “Commodifying Verticality: Symbols, Systems, and Snow” took a systemic approach to explore commercially-driven dynamics surrounding mountains. Carolin Roeder (Berlin) tied commodification to professionalization in mountain climbing during her presentation “How Hard Is Hard? Climbing Grades and the Classification of Verticality in the Twentieth Century.” She explained how understanding the complex notions of difficulty grading can be used as a productive angle to investigate tensions between the individual and the collective, the objective and the subjective, and the global and the local, that were so prevalent in the 20th century. Ultimately, she concluded, the essence of mountain climbing is the experience of verticality, an experience that through the system of difficulty grading has become shareable. In her talk “Logos on Everest” Rachel Gross (Munich) followed the question of how specialized sports attire and equipment became everyday wear. Taking an approach that combines business history with the history of mountain climbing and outdoor clothing gave a great perspective to understand the development of sponsor-climber-partnerships over time and the effects of well-placed sponsorships during mountain tours with regards to increased popularity and profits. Jesse Ritner (Austin) looked at snow-making systems in his talk “Making Snow and Designing X-Games: Technological Innovation and the Production of a New Ski Culture.” Using the technology and history of snow-making as his trajectory, Ritner explored how the ever-presence of snow and its altered materiality changed the course of ski-tourism in the US since the late 1940s and ultimately led to the formation of a new subculture—snowboarding and extreme skiing—that is now on its way into the mainstream by way of commercialization as exemplified by the X-Games.

The status of Appalachia as one of the US mountain regions that are most present in the collective imaginary was well reflected in the conference program and showed a strong commitment to a cross-cultural, mountain-focused cooperation. Appalachia was not only represented in many panels and presentations that focused on this region, its history, geology, literature, and ecology, but also by the numerous scholars from the region who were present and shared their expertise in many conversations. The in-depth knowledge of the region became especially apparent in the panel discussion on Saturday night during which Jessie Blackburn, Associate Professor and Assistant Chair of the English Department at Appalachian State University, and Cameron D. Lippard, Chair of Sociology at Appalachian State University, presented on current re-formulations of Appalachian economics in relation to alcohol. Blackburn thematized Appalachian mountain vineyards and the way in which historical, cultural, regional, recreational, and environmental subjectivities are mediated in relation to wine making and tasting. “Bottling Steep Slopes” gave an excellent overview about these positive developments in the region but was also concerned with the difficulties of stigma and stereotypes that resonate with Appalachia. At the same time, she argued, wine tourism has to sell ‘nostalgic’ and ‘authentic’ notions of the region to stay profitable and to create a sense of heritage and the ‘posh rural’ that can be bottled and taken to the metropolitan areas. Nonetheless, said Blackburn, the wine industry offers a way out of the reliance on fossil capitalism.

Contrary to the expected longevity of wine making in Appalachia, the re-emergence of distilleries that produce moonshine can only be described as short-lived, according to Lampard. With the popularity of craft beer, there was also a found-again interest in making moonshine starting around 2008 when distilleries were legalized, Lippard stated during his talk “Modern Moonshine: the Revival of White Whiskey in the Twenty-First Century.” Moonshine with its connotations of prohibition, illegality, poverty, and individual legends presented a curios product to outsiders, who would buy an experience. Nowadays, however, many legal distilleries have to expand to making other forms of alcohol such as gin or rum; or have to put their moonshine into barrels in order to guarantee a more stable business model. In his talk, Lippard could relate the story of moonshine in Appalachia and its problematic past and present not just through rhetoric but also by offering ‘Original Appalachian Moonshine’ to an audience eager to learn.

The 46th annual conference of the AAAS on “Mediating Mountains” was an excellently organized, engaging event beautifully framed by the Alps and brought to life by an expert community interested in exchanging ideas and experiences. Christian Quendler and Cornelia Klecker did an outstanding job in hosting this event and the Advisory Committee selected great speakers and thought-provoking topics, thus providing a sound basis for all scholarly discussions.

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