A dry pool behind a chain link fence, worn down buildings in the desert, storm clouds loom, flowers bloom in the crusty soil, Ric Kasini Kadour’s America’s Promise considers broken places under late-stage capitalism as a way to ignite a thirst for caring about our communities.
About the Series
As part of my 2020-2021 Curatorial Research Fellowship from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, I have been driving around the continental United States visiting historical sites. Taking old highways and byways, I began to take note of the devastation left by late-stage capitalism. Communities, once thriving and dynamic, were laid bare when new Interstates shifted transportation routes miles to the north or south or when manufacturing was moved to sites with access to cheaper, more exploitable labor. This is what happens in a society where people work solely for their own gains. When the people can no longer extract wealth from a place, they move on and the community dies.
In the tradition of the great early 20th century documentary photographers who portrayed poverty for the Farm Service Agency, I wanted to capture these places as a way to start a conversation about what makes a healthy community. When Kristina Ricketts and Nick T. Place studied what makes communities work, they found, “Four significant factors were determined to set these successful communities apart from those less viable—effective communication, development of social capital, community engagement, and collaboration—across and within communities.” In other words, people worked together. Money, investment, productivity, and capital are not the cornerstones of viable communities. Caring is.
In 1909, Herbert Croly wrote about this in The Promise of American Life: “No doubt Americans have in some measure always conceived their national future as an ideal to be fulfilled. Their anticipations have been uplifting as well as confident and vainglorious…If its promise is anything more than a vision of power and success, that addition must derive its value from a purpose; because in the moral world the future exists only as a workshop in which a purpose is to be realized.”
America’s Promise is a folio of thirty photographs. The titular photograph shows a dry swimming pool behind a chain link fence. Twenty-eight photographs show worn down or abandoned buildings in the desert. Storm clouds loom in the sky. The last photograph shows flowers blooming in the crusty soil. For me, this series is not about poverty and hopelessness. America’s Promise is about remembering what good this country can do: build a town in a desert. My hope is that it will ignite a thirst for caring about our communities.
Question: The style of these photographs feels familiar. Is that intentional?
I decided early on that I wanted to use a visual language familiar to the viewer so I turned to the deadpan photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher and shot the structures in that style. I focus on those buildings with architecture that is Mid-century Modern to contemporary because I want the photographs to feel familiar.
Question: Where were these photographs taken?
I am choosing not to disclose the name of the town. These buildings are ubiquitous across the American landscape. I want the viewer to think about this community as an Anytown or Everytown, USA.
More importantly, I don’t want to shame the people of this town. While shooting I got caught in a hail storm and I moved my car under a carport next to a bank. There I met a woman doing the same. I asked her why she lived there and what she liked about the town. She quite flatly said she had always lived there and didn’t want to live anywhere else, but that the town didn’t have much going on. She didn’t think it would change. I felt her hopelessness.
Question: Two of the photographs refer to the fashion house Prada. Why is that?
This diptych references the permanent installation, Prada Marfa, by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset on Highway 90 in Valentine, Texas. About two weeks before making the America’s Promise photographs, I visited Prada Marfa and was intrigued by the spectacle of a closed, luxury brand store in the isolated Texas grazing land. By titling these two photographs Prada 1 & 2, I wanted the diptych to parody Elmgreen and Draget’s installation and bring into the conversation themes of gentrification, tourism, and the role of art in economic revitalization.
Question: Aren’t these photographs another example of poverty porn?
I held back this series for months thinking about this question. The difference between images of poverty as a narrative about others and these photographs is the context in which I am asking them to be seen. I am not asking the viewer to be titillated by the spectacle of abandoned buildings. I chose not to include people in these photographs because I want the viewer to consider these structures as their own and to imagine what it would mean to care about this community. I want the viewer to see similar structures in their own community and to wonder why that restaurant is shut down or that bookstore is no longer open.
Question: What do you want to accomplish by showing these photographs?
Discussion. I hope this series allows us to unpack what is happening in America in late-stage capitalism. Ricketts and Place’s findings about the relationship between viable communities and caring is urgent and timely. Croly’s ideas about America are not without their problems but, in 1909, he was thinking about some of the same problems we face today and offers some philosophical insight on how to approach them. Economic discontent is driving our troubled civic discourse and fueling extremism.
When we think about income inequality, we often think about people and our thinking about people is often being distorted by those in power who use racism and outdated Protestant notions of work ethic to divide and manipulate. I wanted to create a path forward that allowed us to think about communities, what makes them viable, secure, and safe. Our focus on the “who” in the civic discourse leads us quickly to “them” and “others” and away from “us.” My hope is that a sense of place can be what Croly refers to as that “workshop in which a purpose is to be realized.” That is not to skirt the issues of white supremacy and racial disparities, rather I want to walk into those conversations in a different way than we have in the past. Ultimately, the promise of America needs to be one made to all people and not a select few.
Ricketts, K., & Place, N.T. (2009, April). Making communities more viable: Four essential factors for successful community leadership. ResearchGate.
Croly, Herbert. (1909). The Promise of American Life. Macmillan.
The series consists of thirty, 11″x15″ prints on 90 lb Fabriano cold press watercolor paper. Edition of 5 plus one artist proof. Signed and numbered on back. (Edition 5 is a variable series where each print has been interrupted with a collage element.) In exhibition, the prints are presented in 13″x17″ frames. INQUIRE TO PURCHASE
The zine, America’s Promise, presents the photographs with text selected from The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly (1909).
Details: 32 pages | 7”x5” | saddle-stitched booklet | 2021 | ISBN 978-1-927587-54-6 | AVAILABLE HERE