Standard of Repose

Jennifer Colten and Jesse Vogler

Reviewed by David L. Hays

26 Feb 2021

Stand­ing as a silent sen­tinel, the radio tow­er recedes into the back­ground — thin guy-wires, fil­i­greed steel lat­tice­work, and faint lights bare­ly mark­ing space. It is an ethe­re­al archi­tec­ture — of and on the air. Some­times in our back yards, some­times in our urban periph­eries, and some­times along a lone stretch of road between here and there, radio tow­ers describe a dif­fuse Hertz­ian land­scape of sig­nal and noise, of mean­ing and its with­hold­ing. Send­ing, receiv­ing, trans­mit­ting, col­lect­ing — their sig­nif­i­cance and role not usu­al­ly announced.

Stand­ing, the tow­er is one of the few mate­ri­al­i­ties of an oth­er­wise non-vis­i­ble elec­tro­mag­net­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy — an impos­si­bly high pil­ing-up of mate­r­i­al into a lat­tice­work of steel and sky. But a radio tow­er col­lapsed, fall­en to the ground, sud­den­ly jolts us to dif­fer­ent forms of aware­ness: atten­tion to how the ver­ti­cal tends towards the hor­i­zon­tal; sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the impos­si­bly del­i­cate mem­bers impos­si­bly arranged against grav­i­ty; a rec­ol­lec­tion of oth­er epic fail­ures, maybe even our own. The col­lapse of a tow­er oper­ates through both mate­r­i­al and sym­bol­ic work, not in the overt rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al domain of aes­thet­ic sym­bol­ism, but rather through a new mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion of mean­ing. Which is to say, only in fail­ure is mean­ing made.

The col­lapse of tow­er 4 in the array of radio sta­tion KTRS 550 has invit­ed this set of reflec­tions. The struc­ture was 445.5 feet tall, oper­at­ed at 550 kHz, and was crum­pled by an intense microburst on the evening of June 30, 2018. 445.5 feet in the air is dif­fer­ent from 445.5 feet on the ground, and the tow­er lay in repose for almost two years before being hauled away to an adja­cent scrap-yard. An abrupt and final mate­r­i­al dis-/re-order­ing.

Like all pho­to­graph­ic images, those of the fall­en tow­er shared here assume a posi­tion between the sym­bol­ic and the real. But in the rep­e­ti­tion of images, in our return to the same site over as many weeks and sea­sons as the tow­er lay in the field, the pho­tographs do some­thing unex­pect­ed. The sym­bol­ic weight of the first image — which may shock the view­er in its reg­is­tra­tion of ini­tial vio­lence — is even­tu­al­ly light­ened. The series of pho­tographs grad­u­al­ly build an unmarked space that helps us to move again from a sym­bol­ic domain back to the real — to a tan­gle of met­al, the spalling red and white paint, the edge between mown and un-mown weeds, a deep div­ot in the earth.

The pres­ence of a tow­er of course implies a trans­mis­sion source, a radio sta­tion send­ing sig­nals: in this instance The BIG 550.” Its day­time catch­ment area is one of the largest in the coun­try, span­ning six states, and its sig­nal is so strong that the sta­tion engi­neers must turn it down by four-fifths dur­ing the night­time lest it expand to cov­er half the con­ti­nent. The tow­er also sug­gests an untold num­ber of receivers — a dis­trib­uted par­lia­ment of radio lis­ten­ers. SUVs, pick­up trucks, offices, kitchens, and head­phones are all part of the infra­struc­ture sus­tain­ing the wide­ly dis­persed radio 550 audi­ence — where pro­grams like Farmer Dave,” St. Louis in the Know,” Straight Talk on Retire­ment,” and Yard Sale” help us under­stand the pas­sions, con­cerns, and anx­i­eties of the lis­ten­ing public.

Anten­na engi­neers call them radi­a­tors for the elec­tro­mag­net­ic sig­nals they pro­duce. While archi­tects tend to fetishize the struc­tur­al con­fig­u­ra­tion of steel lat­tice­work (such as we find, for exam­ple, in the cel­e­brat­ed Shukhov tow­ers), radio tow­er engi­neers are most con­cerned about the much less spec­tac­u­lar prop­er­ties of insu­la­tion and ground­ing. And when the tow­er itself is the fun­da­men­tal radi­at­ing unit, mate­r­i­al con­ti­nu­ity across its many com­po­nents and dis­con­ti­nu­ity with the ground are the main pri­or­i­ties. Soft met­als slips are insert­ed between the joints of every con­nec­tion, ensur­ing max­i­mum con­duc­tiv­i­ty of the steel frame by dis­tort­ing and bridg­ing the micro-gaps of bolt­ed steel joints, while the four legs rest on huge nubs of porce­lain, reduc­ing the elec­tro­mag­net­ic cou­pling with the ground and forc­ing a near-zero capac­i­tance at the tow­er base. Elab­o­rate hinged lad­ders, inter­lock­ing but iso­lat­ed O” ring sta­bi­liz­ers, and dis­con­tin­u­ous light­ning rods are col­lat­er­al designs that sup­port this ener­getic archi­tec­ture of communication.

It is per­haps unsur­pris­ing that there is a long his­to­ry of para­noia sur­round­ing radio-waves– any reflec­tion on its ambi­ent sat­u­ra­tion can­not help but con­jure a kind of elec­tro­mag­net­ic sub­lime. Its waves are sim­ply every­where. Not only through the thick sig­nal of human infra­struc­tures and send­ing appa­ra­tus­es but also through the always and every­where inter­ac­tion of the sun and solar wind with the ionos­phere of the plan­et. Giv­en the large wave­lengths at which AM radio oper­ates, the earth and the ionos­phere form a kind of vir­tu­al trans­mis­sion line, with broad­cast­ers count­ing on the reflec­tion of sig­nals off the ionos­phere to reach across dis­tance, over phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers, and around the cur­va­ture of the earth — an intense cou­pling of tech­nol­o­gy and the plan­et itself.

Engi­neers clas­si­fy radio waves in three dis­tinct cat­e­gories — sky waves, space waves, and ground waves — each occu­py­ing its own zone in the atmos­pher­ic plenum. Radio engi­neers make their abstract broad­cast cal­cu­la­tions based on what they call a per­fect­ly con­duct­ing earth” — deter­min­ing the M.U.F. (“max­i­mum usable fre­quen­cy”) and the skip dis­tance (a silent inter­val between where the ground wave dis­si­pates and a reflect­ed wave picks back up). But as most of the earth is in fact of finite con­duc­tiv­i­ty, the sig­nal we hear, and which wave it is car­ried on, is in gen­er­al a sim­ple func­tion of our dis­tance from the tower. 

There is, of course, a spe­cif­ic geog­ra­phy to radio. AM sig­nals are sus­cep­ti­ble to var­i­ous forms of inter­fer­ence or sta­t­ic” — caused by both phys­i­cal obsta­cles, ambi­ent elec­tro­mag­net­ic sig­nals in the atmos­phere, and the steel frames of large build­ings. So their place­ment is often in the wide rur­al spaces adja­cent to large cities or on top of promi­nent high-points.

But this is a geog­ra­phy not only of place­ment but also of per­for­mance — where the elec­tro-phys­io­geog­ra­phy of the soil itself is incor­po­rat­ed into the trans­mis­sion appa­ra­tus. The wide, flat flood­plain where tow­er 4 stood — an area known local­ly as The Amer­i­can Bot­tom — is itself a tech­ni­cal com­po­nent of the trans­mis­sion strat­e­gy. The uncon­sol­i­dat­ed allu­vi­um of the sat­u­rat­ed bot­tom­land is of high con­duc­tiv­i­ty, there­by boost­ing the sig­nal and exag­ger­at­ing the effect of ground waves. What is more, trenched into the ground, and radi­at­ing in 120 strands around the tow­er itself is a ground array the radius of which extends as far hor­i­zon­tal­ly as the tow­er does ver­ti­cal­ly. The sim­ple ver­ti­cal tow­er is in fact part of a com­plex four-dimen­sion­al assem­blage of steel, soil, sat­u­ra­tion, and sig­nal. In its col­lapse, then, this whole land­scape of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is decou­pled in a cas­cad­ing chain of com­mu­ni­ca­tion fail­ures that link humans, things, media, and places.

With­in this dis­trib­uted dis­course net­work of senders and receivers, the col­lapsed tow­er comes to stand in for a more gen­er­al prin­ci­ple in the dialec­tics of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the fail­ure to com­mu­ni­cate, which Der­ri­da might describe as the impos­si­bil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at all. In the sig­nal-to-noise ratios of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, a col­lapsed trans­mit­ter can­cels all sig­nal. In oth­er words, the sig­nal attached to car­ri­er waves is cut off from prop­a­ga­tion. We might imag­ine that the sig­nal itself remains — radio per­son­al­i­ties in their booths, announc­ers read­ing region­al foot­ball scores, com­mer­cials sell­ing couch­es — but, for the receiv­er, it is pure noise.

The mean­ing of tow­er 4 changed over time, its sin­gu­lar­i­ty of col­lapse and fail­ure offer­ing only the first of many read​ings​.As the pho­tographs pre­sent­ed here attest, a new habi­tat formed around the fall­en tow­er. Unable to get too close, for fear of entan­gle­ment, the mow­ing machine oper­a­tors cut a wide swath around it. A tan­gle of vines and even a small copse of trees began to grow with­in its lat­tice­work. Where the tow­er falls, it pro­tects the ground. The fall­en tow­er not as sym­bol­ic col­lapse but as care­giv­er and shel­ter. A new type of sen­tinel of the flood­plain ecosys­tem, where the non-human becomes entan­gled in the mate­ri­al­i­ty of communication.


By David L. Hays

Stan­dard of Repose” is a micro-mon­u­men­tal his­to­ry of a vague ter­rain: the Amer­i­can Bot­tom. By a his­to­ry of, I mean that it’s both from and about that place — which is per­haps the most cred­i­ble way to rep­re­sent a past one can­not grasp with­out hav­ing been there.

Said dif­fer­ent­ly, Stan­dard of Repose” is a true sto­ry (from + about).

Get­ting to know the Amer­i­can Bot­tom is a post-occu­pa­tion pre­oc­cu­pa­tion. Colten and Vogler are part of a con­stel­la­tion of indi­vid­u­als fas­ci­nat­ed by that area and com­mit­ted to shar­ing their under­stand­ing of it with oth­ers. They live with­in it or close by, or they have done so recent­ly. They explore it, alone and togeth­er. They observe, take notes, take pho­tos, draw maps. It takes pres­ence over time, they explain, to come to terms with the seem­ing­ly dis­joint­ed con­di­tions there, in which resid­u­als from an entire his­to­ry of North Amer­i­can set­tle­ment and aspi­ra­tions” seem to have set­tled out scat­ter­shot, like frag­ments of ship­wrecks dis­persed on an ocean floor. But it isn’t hap­haz­ard. Episod­ic but not acci­den­tal,” I read on the web­site Chart­ing the Amer­i­can Bot­tom, a project Vogler co-directs and for which Colten is the pho­tog­ra­ph­er. It’s a take that comes from experience.

Stan­dard of Repose” focus­es on one event: the col­lapse and even­tu­al removal of a radio tow­er with­in the Amer­i­can Bot­tom. It brings togeth­er a selec­tion of pho­tographs tak­en dur­ing dozens of site vis­its and a text inter­weav­ing mate­r­i­al descrip­tions and tech­ni­cal data with obser­va­tions about cul­tur­al and geo­graph­i­cal con­texts. Giv­en my back­ground and inter­ests, I can’t help but see this work in a tra­di­tion of por­traits of place.1 The open­ing sequence is topo­graph­i­cal; it con­veys a sense of pres­ence in a dis­crete moment, per­haps one of first impres­sion. After that, oth­er ways of know­ing and inter­pret­ing take over, with spec­u­la­tion, com­par­i­son, and mem­o­ry con­spir­ing to fos­ter imag­i­na­tion.1 Sit­ting with this work, I feel espe­cial­ly aware of how such com­po­si­tions draw us in and hold us even as they hold us away. In oth­er words, they are mod­ern. But I want to slip past the vel­vet rope of crit­i­cal think­ing, not just to get clos­er to the con­tent but to get inside it, to be part of this past one can­not grasp with­out hav­ing been there, this place that, to be under­stood, requires pres­ence over time.

Last night, I closed my eyes and tried to imag­ine being near the radio tow­er as it col­lapsed dur­ing the sud­den storm event on June 30, 2018. The scale and vio­lence of it were beyond what I could imagine.

In his essay Key Points: Between Fig­ure and Ground” (2016), archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Georges Teyssot draws atten­tion to Simondon’s the­o­ry of the key point,” which Teyssot frames neat­ly as a syn­er­getic alliance of tech­ni­cal schemes and nat­ur­al pow­ers.”2 The idea of engi­neers as mod­ern magi­cians, attract­ed to and engag­ing sites of nat­ur­al con­se­quence, seems borne out in the array of KTRS 550 radio tow­ers and how the elec­tro-phys­io­geog­ra­phy of the soil itself is incor­po­rat­ed into the trans­mis­sion appa­ra­tus.” But what does it mean, then, when a key point” comes undone, as in the col­lapse of tow­er 4? Or, if a radio tow­er falls in a field and nobody is tuned in, does it make silence? I won­der which broad­cast was cut short, mid-sen­tence, mid-song, or mid-silence. And I pic­ture a vast chore­og­ra­phy of lis­ten­ers — in homes, work­places, and vehi­cles — sud­den­ly reach­ing out to adjust their dials.

Laid down, the rum­pled frame of the tow­er looks like some mas­sive, long-necked crea­ture — not flesh and bones but an exoskele­ton, a molt.

I’m won­der­ing if I can relate to tow­ers the way I relate to trees. Humans have long ani­mat­ed trees through anthro­po­mor­phic pro­jec­tion — for exam­ple, those ornery spec­i­mens in The Wiz­ard of Oz. But the more I learn about trees — how they per­ceive, com­mu­ni­cate, and remem­ber — the more ethe­re­al they seem, even as they are root­ed in place.3 If I can relate to trees now, it’s through a grow­ing aware­ness of my own embod­ied ener­gies, and that sense also per­tains to tow­er 4 and oth­er radi­at­ing struc­tures designed to trans­mit ener­gy through their frames. That tow­ers are objects, rather than liv­ing beings, no longer feels like a lim­it (per the log­ic of object-ori­ent­ed ontol­ogy). What mat­ters to me instead is how I am imag­in­ing elec­tric­i­ty as a ten­sion­er that keeps radi­at­ing struc­tures upright, like the sprung threads in a thumb press toy. When the but­ton on the bot­tom of the toy is pushed, ten­sion is released and the fig­ure slack­ens. Maybe tow­er 4 fell because the elec­tric­i­ty stopped flow­ing, if only for a moment. Wouldn’t I do the same? 

When I was a child, three weep­ing wil­low trees stood at the bot­tom of our front yard. With their encir­cling veils of long, thin branch­es cas­cad­ing to the ground, they were like vast halls or tents, but from up at the house they looked like ele­phants. One after­noon, the sky turned black and a vio­lent storm broke out. My broth­er and I stood on the liv­ing room sofa, lean­ing against its back, and watched through a big pic­ture win­dow. Each time we saw a flash, we would drop down to the seat to wait for the boom of thun­der. Sud­den­ly, a bolt of light­ning burst in front of us. We shrieked and dropped but also lis­tened intent­ly as the mas­sive clap that shook the house migrat­ed into a strange crack­ing and crash­ing. When we sur­faced again, the small­est wil­low tree was on its side.

After the storm had passed, we dashed out to explore. For chil­dren who like to climb, a tree on its side is a fresh world of won­ders. Intox­i­cat­ed by the pos­si­bil­i­ties, I begged my father to leave it, but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. When I look at the pho­tographs of tow­er 4 on the ground and the sea­sons of growth around and inside it, I think of the fall­en wil­low and the impulse to clear it way.

Where I live now, there’s a stick pile in the back­yard, some­thing my neigh­bor start­ed not know­ing what else to do with branch­es that fell from the trees over­head. With time, it has become quite large. To oth­ers, it must look like neglect, but var­i­ous small ani­mals live there, and we like that. Episod­ic but not accidental.



Cf. Stephen H. White­man, Access and Inti­ma­cy,” in Where Drag­on Veins Meet: The Kangxi Emper­or and His Estate at Rehe (Seat­tle, WA: Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Press, 2020), 208 – 224.


Georges Teyssot, Key Points: Between Fig­ure and Ground,” trans. Alexan­dre Cham­pagne, reviewed by Robert Mitchell, Forty-Five: A Jour­nal of Out­side Research, 24 Jan. 2016: https://​forty​-five​.com/​p​a​p​e​r​s​/​k​e​y​-​p​o​i​n​t​s​-​b​e​t​w​e​e​n​-​f​i​g​u​r​e​-​a​n​d​-​g​round.


Lind­sey french, Echi­nacea pur­purea, Quer­cus macro­carpa, Ascle­pias tuberosa, Tsuga canaden­sis, and Pinus strobus, land of words: a col­lec­tion of poet­ry by plants,” reviewed by David L. Hays, Forty-Five: A Jour­nal of Out­side Research, 16 Nov. 2018: https://​forty​-five​.com/​p​a​p​e​r​s​/​l​a​n​d​-​o​f​-​w​o​r​d​s​-​a​-​c​o​l​l​e​c​t​i​o​n​-​o​f​-​p​o​e​t​r​y​-​b​y​-​p​lants.


Jen­nifer Coltens work focus­es on tran­si­tion­al land­scapes and the his­to­ries of cul­tur­al and geo­graph­ic space. Her pho­to­graph­ic prac­tice includes explo­ration of sites at the mar­gins of the urban envi­ron­ment where resilience and eco­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion are present. Cen­tral con­cerns con­sid­er com­plex and inter­twined issues of social, and envi­ron­men­tal impli­ca­tions of land use. Col­lab­o­ra­tion is essen­tial to Colten’s work where an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach is part of a larg­er process of engag­ing with com­mu­ni­ty, insti­tu­tions and pub­lic space. After receiv­ing her MFA from Mass­a­chu­setts Col­lege of Art in Boston, Colten relo­cat­ed to the Mid­west and can cur­rent­ly be found wan­der­ing the Amer­i­can Bot­tom, where the land­scape is shaped by the many forces of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er. www​.jen​nifer​colten​.com Email: jennifer@​jennifercolten.​com

Jesse Vogler is an archi­tect and artist whose work sits at the inter­sec­tion of land­scape, pol­i­tics, and per­for­mance. His writ­ing and projects address the entan­gle­ments between land­scape and law and take on themes of work, prop­er­ty, exper­tise, and mem­o­ry. Jesse is a Mac­Dow­ell Fel­low, Ful­bright Schol­ar, and, in addi­tion to his art and research prac­tice, he is a land sur­vey­or, co-directs the Insti­tute of Mark­ing and Mea­sur­ing, and teach­es across land­scape, archi­tec­ture, art, and urban­ism. He is based in Tbil­isi, Geor­gia, where he is Pro­fes­sor and Head of the Archi­tec­ture Pro­gram at the Free Uni­ver­si­ty of Tbil­isi. www​.jes​sevogler​.com Email: jessevogler@​gmail.​com

David L. Hays is co-edi­­tor of Forty-Five, co-direc­­tor of the gallery Space p11, found­ing prin­ci­pal of Ana­log Media Lab, and Pro­fes­sor and Bren­ton H. and Jean B. Wadsworth Head of the Depart­ment of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­­paign. Trained in archi­tec­ture and his­to­ry of art, his schol­ar­ly research explores con­tem­po­rary land­scape the­o­ry and prac­tice, the his­to­ry of gar­den and land­scape design in ear­ly mod­ern Europe, inter­faces between archi­tec­ture and land­scape, and ped­a­go­gies of his­to­ry and design. Hays is the edi­tor of Land­scape with­in Archi­tec­ture (2004) and (Non-)Essential Knowl­edge for (New) Archi­tec­ture (2013), both by 306090/​Princeton Archi­tec­tur­al Press. His essays have appeared in a wide range of inter­na­tion­al design- and his­­to­ry-based jour­nals and as chap­ters in numer­ous books. Email: dlhays@​illinois.​edu