Kellen Cooks – 2022 Cornell Biennial


Dreaming-on-Hudson: The Politics and Power of Speculation in the Hudson Valley
Curriculum and Exhibition


From Washington Irving to the Hudson River School, 19th-century anthropomorphizing narratives of haunted, restorative, and romantic nature grew to define the image of the Hudson Valley far into the future, even while the region has drastically evolved under these stories’ feet. Now, as the highly socioeconomically, culturally, and ecologically diverse region marches deeper into a deindustrialized and COVID-shaped 21st century, the future is gray and malleable. Children dream, activists organize, planners plan, developers develop, politicians promise, yet everyone is speculating, grasping at strings for what comes next.

Through high school arts and social studies curriculum development, my team will explore how spatial imaginations are produced from communities and their environment, and how these imaginations dovetail and/or lie in contestation within the Hudson Valley’s racialized and stratified socioeconomic structure. We claim that the dreams that come from these imaginations compete to shape the region’s collective conception of its past and collective goals for its future. From this project, we can universally learn to question how the way in which a place is told shapes its identity, its communities, its development, and its future.

In this project’s dream cultivation efforts through high school curriculum development, maps are a key medium towards conveying students’ spatial dreams and imaginations. Within this project, approaching mapmaking as a radical artform will be key to ensuring that political claims and subjectivity are encouraged from students. The curriculum will introduce elements of the United States’ spatial history through the medium of conventional cartography. As these historical-spatial topics are introduced, students will be trained in hand-drawn and digital mapmaking skills, and will then create their own counter-maps, overturning exclusive spatial imaginaries and reimagining how space could be treated. Students might collectively define criteria that make a sustainable and inclusive community, and then “greenlining” their town, or thinking of interventions to help their community reach these standards. Beyond reacting to American history, students will also be influenced by maps from fantasy and speculative fiction, and will be encouraged to think of their own communities in such imaginative ways. Where are there dragons, and where are there rainbows? Where does their world end? What does the community look like in 2100? In 3000?

Students’ maps will be collected into a booklet that encapsulates the class’s vision of their community’s identity and its future, and can be circulated with local governments and publicized to compete with the spatial narratives constructed by regional plans and mass media in the effort to define the Hudson Valley’s past, present, and future.

Kellen Cooks (United States)

Kellen was born in Bridgeport, CT, and raised in Ossining, NY. He still calls the Hudson Valley home, and the region is the focus of his undergrad thesis, which revolves around how speculative narratives have shaped the identity of the Hudson Valley from the past to the present, and how environmental speculations influence the region’s future through their collective imagination and their development and governance structures. In this exploration of spatial narratives, he is developing a curriculum kit and plan alongside Jillian McRae, Samuel North, Joyce Sharrock Cole, and the Just Places Lab that utilizes creative mapmaking to represent Hudson Valley teenagers’ present understandings of their community, and dream of their community’s future.

During his time at Cornell and after, Kellen would like to dream alongside communities about equitable and decolonial futures, and work towards making those dreams a reality within their landscape, especially with communities who often lack the privilege to turn their spatial dreams into a reality. This career goal could translate into housing policy and justice work, high school teaching, getting a PhD, community organizing, or politics. He is not quite sure yet, and wants to keep himself flexible as he explores career pathways focused around spatial justice.

In his free time, Kellen likes singing R&B and Indie music, exploring new and familiar places, hanging with friends and family, reading sci-fi, and watching his beloved Knicks.

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