Nothing Here

Keith Mitnick

Reviewed by Rod Barnett

04 Jul 2015

Rainy Sea is a small piece of land locat­ed in the mid­dle of a large riv­er sep­a­rat­ing the Unit­ed States and Cana­da. His­tor­i­cal accounts of the island are so var­ied that they appear to refer to entire­ly dif­fer­ent places, and when dif­fer­ent maps of the island are over­laid, the shapes of their con­tours sel­dom agree. Despite its small size, Rainy Sea has played an impor­tant role in defin­ing the region by pro­vid­ing an almost com­ic car­i­ca­ture of the many mas­quer­ades, manip­u­la­tions, and polit­i­cal decep­tions that have char­ac­ter­ized the area’s unique his­to­ry. From a dis­tance, Rainy Sea appears aban­doned, over­grown with trees and resem­bles a wilderness.

Though it is locat­ed near a large city, Rainy Sea feels iso­lat­ed and far away. Through­out its his­to­ry, the island has been repeat­ed­ly dis­cov­ered, built up, torn down and aban­doned, and it is cur­rent­ly lit­tered with the remains of numer­ous build­ings includ­ing a prison, an aquar­i­um, a bunker, and a series of small decay­ing fac­to­ries. Along with the forests and ran­dom wildlife that have over­tak­en the frag­ments of remain­ing struc­tures, quar­ries and a ceme­tery are the ves­tiges of an amuse­ment park built many years ago that no one has both­ered to remove. Stacks of rust­ed scaf­fold­ing and fall­en stat­ues once used to dec­o­rate the park’s tick­et stands and con­ces­sions now line the crum­bling edges of emp­ty swim­ming pools and dis­solv­ing beach­fronts, and con­crete bunkers once cov­ered by earth stand exposed atop erod­ing hill­sides. The arrange­ments of roads and trees, lack­ing the pres­ence of the build­ings that for­mer­ly jus­ti­fied them, sug­gest a strange topog­ra­phy of non-des­ti­na­tions and vacant centers.

The island is a geo­graph­i­cal conun­drum, a bizarre assem­blage of famil­iar things dis­con­nect­ed from their orig­i­nal con­texts and insert­ed back into cir­cum­stances to which they no longer relate. More curi­ous than the array of once-pur­pose­ful con­struc­tions ren­dered use­less is the way they con­join, fall apart and entice one to draw con­nec­tions among them, despite the futil­i­ty of doing so with any cer­tain­ty. For those who have grown up in the near­by city, the island is more of an idea about a des­ti­na­tion than a place they would ever go, some­thing to be seen through rather than thought about. The appar­ent invis­i­bil­i­ty of Rainy Sea is what allows it to hide what hap­pens there. From mil­i­tary bases and secret pris­ons to stor­age facil­i­ties and ille­gal dump­sites, the island has been a tool for dis­ap­pear­ing” the func­tions it provides.


The sound of the small plane’s engine was the only indi­ca­tion of its pres­ence as it flew through the ear­ly morn­ing fog. Paul stared into a cloudy win­dow while an over­weight stew­ard wheeled a ser­vice cart down the aisle along most­ly emp­ty seats. As the stew­ard neared the back of the plane, Paul imag­ined the aircraft’s over­loaded tail push­ing the plane’s nose invol­un­tar­i­ly upward — and was remind­ed of a paint­ing he had seen of a tor­tured saint look­ing up to heav­en as a swarm of demons car­ried his body off to hell.

Paul had want­ed to stay on the island for the sake of his sis­ters but ran away to pro­tect him­self. He judged him­self a fail­ure, first for hav­ing aban­doned them and lat­er for con­tin­u­ing to doubt the right­ness of his deci­sion. As his sense of inad­e­qua­cy grew, so, too, did his need to invent the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a dif­fer­ent future for him­self. He visu­al­ized the embryo of anoth­er Paul” in the form of a minute sub-frac­tion of him­self he called the pre­cious pearl.” The pearl fed upon his anx­i­eties like a friend­ly par­a­site and con­vert­ed them into growth food for the sec­ond body that, he hoped, would one day replace him. As he await­ed the insur­rec­tion of the grow­ing pearl, the old Paul rehearsed dia­log for the Nurem­berg-like war tri­als in which the unsup­port­ive parts of his for­mer self would be tried and hung.

Return­ing to the island now after so many years, Paul real­ized that his faith in the pearl had waned, and the image he had clung to of it glow­ing deep inside had fad­ed. And though the idea of a bet­ter Paul grow­ing out of the per­son he was no longer inspired him, the ques­tion remained as to whether his sense of some­thing miss­ing was a bod­i­ly sen­sa­tion of the unoc­cu­pied area allo­cat­ed for the ful­ly grown pearl or the idea of an irrepara­ble hole with which the sto­ry of the pre­cious-pearl had infect­ed his oth­er­wise ful­fill-able life.


I grew up in a sin­gle house with­in two fam­i­lies. My par­ents each lived there with my twin sis­ters, Agnes and Paula, and me, but on dif­fer­ent days of the week. My moth­er was there from Sun­day to Wednes­day. She was moody and demand­ing and man­aged to con­vince us that her needs were always more impor­tant than ours. My mem­o­ries of my father are less dis­tinct. He was with us Thurs­day to Sat­ur­day, sel­dom spoke and drift­ed aim­less­ly through the house like a ghost. My moth­er oblit­er­at­ed us with her pres­ence, and my father hard­ly appeared at all. The two of them rotat­ed in and out of the house while we shut­tled between their lives.

As chil­dren, my sis­ters and I each had some iden­ti­fi­able prob­lem with vision. I wore bifo­cal glass­es that quadru­pled my view, and Agnes had an eye patch that cut hers in half. Paula had astig­ma­tism in her left eye that caused her sight to dou­ble and blur. The eye doc­tor told me that one of my eyes was lazy — it didn’t want to do its job, drift­ed inward and left its part­ner to do all of the work. I liked the idea that there was con­fu­sion with­in my effort to see and pol­i­tics among my parts. I had to wear thick glass­es that made a hor­i­zon­tal line across my eyes where the seams of the dif­fer­ing lens­es met. It was strange to me that the inter­sec­tion of trans­par­ent things would pro­duce vis­i­ble edges. My glass­es were fre­quent­ly dirty, though I sel­dom noticed until I was remind­ed by oth­ers to clean them.


Paul gasped in his seat as the small dot came into view through the tiny win­dow and then grew into an island as the plane descend­ed. If he had known the night before that he would be on a flight back to Rainy Sea the next day, he would have found a way to avoid it, but there he was return­ing to a place he want­ed noth­ing more than to for­get. As the wheels of the plane touched down, rac­ing Paul towards his own dis­tant past, the edges of the island reached up around him like a ris­ing abyss. He rushed through the air­port, kept his head down, and did what he could to block out the famil­iar­i­ty of the place. He renewed self-promis­es to leave the fol­low­ing day and strug­gled against his body’s efforts to re-root itself in the place from which it had so long ago been extract­ed. The image of a loco­mo­tive speed­ing towards dis­as­ter appeared in Paul’s head like The Lit­tle Engine That Could—but in place of the reas­sur­ing mantra of I think I can, I think I can” he recalled from the book, he heard fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”


My moth­er was the cap­tain of a fer­ry­boat that crossed back and forth between the island and the near­by city. She worked long hours that required us to ride along on the boat when­ev­er we want­ed to spend time with her. The high­lights of these trips were the con­ver­sa­tions we had about riv­er nav­i­ga­tion. I was fas­ci­nat­ed to dis­cov­er that the nego­ti­a­tion of local water­ways had noth­ing to do with what one saw with one’s eyes and every­thing to do with knowl­edge of the unseen shape of the riv­er bot­tom below.

My father was a librar­i­an who was more inter­est­ed in books than life. No mat­ter where he was, he was read­ing. He walled him­self away in sto­ries to avoid deal­ing with the world. Over and over, I tried to talk to him by telling him things about my life as though I was a char­ac­ter in one of his favorite books, switch­ing in and out of dif­fer­ent voic­es to dis­guise my need for his atten­tion in the per­spec­tive of dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary char­ac­ters. It’s so BRIGHT in here,” I would shout as the Invis­i­ble Man. Why can’t you SEE me?”


Paul drove off in a cab with­out telling the dri­ver where to go. When the phone had awok­en him the night before, a man told him that one of his sis­ters was in the hos­pi­tal and the oth­er had dis­ap­peared. The man asked if Paul knew where a mys­te­ri­ous suit­case that his sis­ter had asked for was and insist­ed that he come to the island as soon as pos­si­ble. As the taxi sped for­ward, Paul con­sid­ered options: he could go to Paula, look for Agnes, or vis­it the house where he had grown up and Paula still lived. Sit­ting in the seat not decid­ing, he erased every­thing he saw by re-describ­ing it to him­self: That’s not the place where any­thing I can remem­ber ever happened.”

He thought about the suit­case his moth­er had held against her chest every day as she rocked on the edge of the couch. The impres­sion she left on the cush­ion remained for many years after her death and dis­tract­ed him from ever won­der­ing about the suit­case — though, think­ing back, Paul won­dered why he hadn’t been more curi­ous. As the taxi turned sud­den­ly to avoid an exposed man­hole, one of its wheels dropped into it. The dri­ver accel­er­at­ed to free the spin­ning wheel as Paul lurched into the back of his seat, hear­ing, but not respond­ing to, the driver’s demand that he get out of the car. With the sound of met­al grind­ing against pave­ment, Paul looked up to see a sail­boat pass­ing on a trail­er, remind­ing him of the sub­merged dry dock where they kept his mother’s fer­ry after the crash.


Our house stood between the edges of a for­est and the riv­er on the north end of Rainy Sea. Its win­dows were arranged in a way that, look­ing out, one had the impres­sion of being in a large unmov­ing ship aimed per­ma­nent­ly upstream. In my mem­o­ry, the house is com­prised of a series of frag­ment­ed hall­ways and incom­plete rooms, each sep­a­rat­ed by inac­ces­si­ble pock­ets of emp­ty space and fur­nished in half-mea­sures that made it dif­fi­cult to know how to use the rooms despite the obvi­ous pur­pos­es they were intend­ed to serve. Think­ing back, I have trou­ble rec­on­cil­ing what I know about the loca­tion of the house with what I remem­ber see­ing out of its win­dows. It is nev­er clear to me if the house has shaped my mem­o­ries, or if my mem­o­ries have sim­ply con­struct­ed a sym­pa­thet­ic land­scape in which to appear.

Among the few pieces of advice my father ever gave me was make your­self invis­i­ble and fol­low the rules.” My mother’s phi­los­o­phy was the oppo­site — she thought rules were for oth­er peo­ple and that we should do what­ev­er we want­ed, as long as we didn’t get in her way. I would have pre­ferred the voice of a sin­gle all-know­ing author­i­ty to the mutu­al­ly exclu­sive set of life lessons I received from them, regard­less of what it told me, or so I believed. Our house cor­rob­o­rat­ed the mad­ness of our con­flict­ed par­ent­ing per­fect­ly, com­posed as it was of a series of maze-like rooms that repeat­ed and divid­ed, con­ceal­ing some areas and fal­si­fy­ing the lim­its of oth­ers. It had every­thing a house is sup­posed to have, but in the wrong num­ber and arrange­ment, like a back­wards head with two brains and a giant eye.


The tra­di­tion of mak­ing Rainy Sea appear dif­fer­ent than it was extends back to the ori­gin of its name. Sim­i­lar to Ice­land — a name devised by Ice­landers to keep for­eign­ers away by mak­ing it sound less appeal­ing than it was — the Cana­di­ans named the island Rien Ici, French for noth­ing here.” To the Amer­i­cans, who would even­tu­al­ly steal it by chang­ing Rien Ici into Rainy Sea, the mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion was a way to alter its his­to­ry. By call­ing the island Cana­di­an” dur­ing Amer­i­can Pro­hi­bi­tion, Amer­i­cans were able to sell alco­hol legal­ly, and when Cana­di­ans need­ed to dis­pose of the garbage they did­n’t allow in their own coun­try, the island became Amer­i­can.” When Amer­i­can busi­ness­es stood to gain more from Cana­di­an tax laws than their own, they hap­pi­ly ced­ed the nation­al­i­ty of the place to the oth­er, and when it ben­e­fit­ed both coun­tries to have a place to incar­cer­ate polit­i­cal pris­on­ers free of their respec­tive laws, it was deemed a no-man’s land.”

Noth­ing Here” is an excerpt from Rainy Sea, a forth­com­ing book by Kei­th Mit­nick. All images cour­tesy of the author.


By Rod Barnett

At first we see rocks, riv­er, for­est, the famil­iar meta-objects of the nat­ur­al world — large, heav­ing nat­ur­al sys­tems. They are pre­sent­ed as giv­en, famil­iar to us. We walk and swim, fish, boat, sit and stare. But it’s not as if this über-land­scape is that famil­iar. There’s a sense of edge, of not know­ing, a pre-con­di­tion per­haps, for some­thing beyond our ken that is about to hap­pen. And then we begin to slide. Some­thing inside reach­es out to the world and some­thing in the world stirs too. Now the trees are some­how dis­lodged from the for­est and the rocks are etched with his­to­ries that are not just geo­log­i­cal or ocean­ic. A pas­sage opens up between my twin sis­ters and I drift through. The past opens up: my self-obsessed moth­er, my dumb bifo­cals that gave every­thing a hori­zon, that miss­ing suit­case. Are they becom­ing one? Is this famil­iar land­scape mak­ing me, or am I mak­ing it? Sky becomes sea and sea becomes sky. There is no longer a hori­zon. Maybe it is me. I open the suit­case and a swarm of demons flies out. They lift up through the trees, across the rocky coast and out into the gray zone above the waters. They have gone. So noth­ing is giv­en. Noth­ing works. The island, the fam­i­ly… But dys­func­tion­al sys­tems awak­en us to the rar­i­ty of the world, reveal aspects of the world that we for­get are there, or over­look. They derail the assign­ment to which we some­times feel our life has been ded­i­cat­ed — ded­i­cat­ed, that is, in the way that a book or a plaque is ded­i­cat­ed to some­one (my sis­ters) or some­thing (Rien Ici).



Kei­th Mit­nick is a founder of the design prac­tice Mit­nick Rod­di­er and an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, where he held the 2000 Sanders Fel­low­ship in Archi­tec­ture. Before join­ing the fac­ul­ty at Michi­gan, Mit­nick taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. The work of Mit­nick Rod­di­er (for­mer­ly Mit­nick Rod­di­er Hicks) has been pub­lished and exhib­it­ed wide­ly, with recog­ni­tions includ­ing the Young Archi­tects Forum Award (Archi­tec­tur­al League of New York), the Unbuilt Archi­tec­ture Award (Boston Soci­ety of Archi­tects), and the Archi­tec­tur­al Record Design Van­guard Award. Mitnick’s inde­pen­dent writ­ing and designs have appeared in Log, Prax­is, and Har­vard Design Mag­a­zine, and his research has been sup­port­ed by two Gra­ham Foun­da­tion grants and the Burn­ham Prize Fel­low­ship to the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my in Rome. His first book, Arti­fi­cial Light: A Nar­ra­tive Inquiry into the Nature of Abstrac­tion, Imme­di­a­cy, and Oth­er Archi­tec­tur­al Fic­tions, was pub­lished by Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press in 2008. Email: kmitnick@​umich.​edu

Rod Bar­nett is pro­fes­sor and chair of the Mas­ter of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture pro­gram at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis. He was pre­vi­ous­ly chair of the grad­u­ate land­scape archi­tec­ture pro­gram at Auburn Uni­ver­si­ty and, before that, held sim­i­lar posi­tions at Unitec Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy in Auck­land, New Zealand. Bar­nett earned a Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Auck­land, where he researched the poten­tial of non­lin­ear dynam­i­cal sys­tems sci­ence to inform land­scape archi­tec­tur­al design and prac­tice. As part of his stud­ies, he devel­oped a self-orga­niz­ing approach to urban devel­op­ment called Artweb, a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary design and plan­ning strat­e­gy that focus­es on mar­gin­al­ized and under­uti­lized urban ter­rains to cre­ate a net­work of arts and sci­ence projects through­out the city. Bar­nett has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on themes devel­oped from his work in non­lin­ear design. His book Emer­gence in Land­scape Archi­tec­ture (Rout­ledge) was pub­lished in 2013. After many years in pro­fes­sion­al prac­tice lead­ing to built work, Bar­nett now main­tains an exper­i­men­tal prac­tice cul­mi­nat­ing in com­pe­ti­tions and exhi­bi­tions. Email: rodbarnett@​wustl.​edu