Significant & Insignificant Mounds is a collaboration between photographer Jennifer Colten and artist/writer Jesse Vogler. Our project marries current day photographs with experimental essays and texts gathered from diverse sources – historic and legal registers, literary content, land surveys, vernacular archives, archaeological and geographical notes. As our project intertwines these varied modes of representation, complex relationships between the multiple narratives of place, of history, and of culture are revealed. We work to read this complex landscape where geography, site, history, and the marks of cultural erasure are brought forward. Significant & Insignificant Mounds represents ongoing work — regular and repeated visits locating, observing, imagining, researching, documenting and often seeking to feel and know a landscape that seems to resist knowing.
Once referred to as Mound City, St. Louis and the surrounding Metro region is now only sporadically recognized by its historical relationship to the Native American Mississippian culture. It is here that pre-contact people built a vast and interconnected array of mounds. Looking across the contemporary landscape, just a fraction of these ancient mounds still exists – though that is not all our project seeks to explore.
In uncanny proximity to this region’s Indigenous Mounds, sit the residue of industrial activity. Slag heaps, landfills, tailing piles, and resilient vegetation mark our contemporary intersection with the land. These adjacencies are telling; the region’s largest landfill sits immediately west of the historic Monk’s Mounds. The landfill's large subterranean benzene plume leaks underneath, seeping toward innumerable burial and settlement sites. This is a landscape divided within itself—historically, discursively, geologically, and, most importantly, in its modes of signification.
As we hope is clear, the value judgments suggested in our title do not cut along easy lines. For in the end, each of these mounds is, on its own terms, both significant and insignificant. They are all markers to a way of being, a way of seeing the world. Our interest in the pairing of text and image, and in the pairing of so-called ‘meaning-filled’ and ‘meaning-less’ subjects, is to bring the process of signification itself to the surface, in order to complicate received value judgments that so often attend landscape photography and description. We do not aim for an illustrative description of place. There is nothing in our writing and photography that seeks to provide a tidy orientation or even a neat juxtaposition. Rather, we relish the ambiguities, unknowns, and unknowabilities of this place in its fullest.