INFLeXions No. 3 - Micropolitics: Exploring Ethico-Aesthetics (Oct. 2009)
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"But what can the geopolitical lens reveal, when it's a matter of artistic invention?" (Holmes, 2008a)
"Has the ideology of our time not become an erratic, wavering pattern of crisscrossing footsteps, traced in secure metric points on an abstract field? The aesthetic form of the dérive is everywhere. But so is the hyper-rationalist grid of Imperial infrastructure." (Holmes, 2003b)
The figure of map1, historically associated with colonial imperialism, has gradually grown into a privileged trope of contemporary art which articulates it either as personal cartography (singular trace)2, as an ethnographic map of a community or institution3 - thus revealing the complexity of the relationships within these -, or even by evoking its constitutive power, a map of becoming that traces a people to come4. This notion of map as an artistic trope evokes, for example, the work of Lothar Baumgarten, a German artist whose conceptualist work is shaped by a subtle social critique manifested in a particularly poetic and political way of molding ethnographical and historical materials. In this respect we recall specifically the 20015 exhibition that the Fundação de Serralves (Porto) dedicated to this artist, titled "By water brought collected broken buried", in which the first room displayed a vast map spread out on the floor and partially hidden by a net (Voo Nocturno, 1968-69) next to a small pyramid of blue pigment (Tetraedo, 1968). Cartographies, photographs, names, drawings, sounds, feathers, masks and charms populate the universe of Baumgarten, but always filtered by a reflexive gesture: there is always a mirror, an object of daily use abandoned in the jungle, a name beyond the code, a disorienting index on the map which all betray the presence of the artist, of his gaze, of his system of values. In the words of Hal Foster:
Trevor Paglen, a Californian artist, refers to such a cartesian opposition as "God's Eye"--thus justifying his hesitation in working from a cartographic point-of-view--during his conversation with Visible anthropological, to the point
where an ethnographic mapping of an institution or a community is a
primary form of site-specific art today." (Foster, 1996: 184-185) 4Such
is the stance of Brian Holmes in "Imaginary maps, global solidarities":
"My conviction is that we need radically inventive maps exactly
like we need radical political movements: to go beyond received ideas
and orders, in fact, to go beyond representation, to rediscover and
share the space - creating potentials of a revolutionary imagination."
(Holmes, 2003a) 5Concerning which I wrote a short text
published by the online magazine Interact, #4, November 2001.
Available at: http://www.interact.com.pt/
Collective/Naeem Mohaimen regarding the map co-authored with John Emerson for project CIA Rendition Flights 2001-2006 (2006), and included on the book An Atlas of Radical Cartography (Mogel, L. & Bhagat, A., 2008)6. In fact, this fascinating Atlas, composed of ten maps created by artists and activists, as well as an equal number of essays which query and analyze these irreverent and unsettling cartographies, brings together reflexivity and activist gesture and may be read in agreement with the notion of "tactical media," just as described by the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA) on its short essay "Tactical Cartographies," which examines the map Routes of Least Surveillance (2001-2007) by the IAA and Site-R. As the collective puts it:
"At root, tactical media is an interventionist practice that creates disruption within existing systems of power and control. Less a methodology than an orientation, it is fundamentally pragmatic, utilizing any and all available technologies, aesthetics and methods as dictated by the goals of a given action. Tactical media are often ephemeral and event-driven, existing only as long as they continue to be effective. They vanish into thin air once their utility has been exhausted, leaving only traces in the form of memories, documentation and journalistic accounts. (…) Extending these notions to spatial representation, 'tactical cartography' refers to the creation, distribution, and use of spatial data to intervene in systems of control affecting spatial meaning and practice. "(Institute for Applied Autonomy, 2008: 29-30)
Thus, this concept of "tactical cartography," which in many ways transverses the numerous creative contributes of the Atlas, calls into play a re-invention of territory, an heterotopic enunciation, in which artistic experimentation merges with activist guerrilla, and thus the notion of map appears in its full pragmatic breadth, re-drawing what's hidden, suspended, repressed and denied, a geology submerged by the voracious fluxes of neo-liberal globalization from which may, nevertheless, emerge new networks, affections, concepts and alliances under the aegis of a desire for a complex social bond of solidarity8. We may recall here the words of Brian Holmes in "The Affectivist Manifesto", where we witness an enunciation of affect9, in the deleuzian sense, allied (implicitly) to Foucault's concept of subjectivation10:
"Artist activism is
affectivism, it opens up expanding territories. These territories are
occupied by the sharing of a double difference: a split from the private
self in which each person was formerly enclosed, and from the social
The collective volume An Atlas of Radical Cartography reaches into this "affectivism", as Brian Holmes calls it, creating new territories of possibilities by casting different looks into existing territories, illuminating areas of darkness, indetermination and marginalization, but also analytically scrutinizing the complex networks that support the geographies of contemporary capitalism. The theme of Atlas is introduced immediately on the cover, which shows an inverted map of the world; subtly, ironically, it's right at the surface that we plunge into an "upside down" world in which an extraordinary complexity entails a growing opacity in obvious contradiction with the proliferation of discourses on transparency and the immediacy of the society of information (in fact, the current worldwide financial crisis is an unmistakable proof of this opacity).
Reminiscent of the urgent need for an "aesthetics of cognitive mapping" capable of challenging the perplexity and incomprehension of the postmodern individual in face of the complex (multinational and communicational) networks that traverse his/hers experience-- suggested by Frederic Jameson, in 1984, on his famous article, later turned into a book, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism--, the Ashley Hunt map, titled A World Map: in which we see... (2005), is perhaps, of all the maps in this Atlas, the one that most openly takes on an analytic and didactic approach.
Ashley Hunt. A World Map: in which we see..., 2005. Image kindly supplied by the artist.
Ashley Hunt. A World Map: in which we see..., 2005 (detail). Image kindly supplied by the artist.
Quoting Ashley Hunt:
"A World Map In Which We See... traces our contemporary modes of power and powerlessness, through which positions of wealth and privilege always exist in connection to the work or subordination of another. (...) Primary research for the map came from years of cultural and political work within activist and reform movements against the United States' prison system, and emerged from a perceived need to expand the analytical basis for that work beyond the limitations of nationally framed legal, institutional and civil discourse. Especially after September 11, 2001, a condition of statelessness appeared to increasingly define the nature of imprisonment and mass prison expansion (which is now a global, albeit US driven phenomena), making the figure of the prisoner less and less discernable from displaced figures the world over whose resources and power are progressively seized and expropriated." (Hunt, 2008: 145-146)11
The figure of the placeless, namely the clandestine immigrant and the refugee, is mapped by the collective An Architektur12 through a detailed cartography of the Departure Center at Fürth (a center for illegal immigrants with no passports or similar documentation) in the German Bavaria, as well as by visualizations of the center-mediated relationships between the asylum seekers and the several institutions involved (medical, juridical, law enforcement, among others), as well as the procedures for seeking asylum in Germany.
An Architektur in collaboration with a42.org. Geography of the Fürth Departure Center, 2004 (detail). Image kindly supplied by the collective.
An Architektur in collaboration with a42.org. Geography of the Fürth Departure Center, 2004. Image kindly supplied by the collective.
Quoting from the Geography of the Fürth Departure Center map:
"Ausreisezentren, or, 'departure centers', are camps for refugees and migrants that, due to missing papers, cannot be deported. Asylum seekers held in these camps are accused by authorities of concealing their land of origin and resisting obtaining passports. So far there are seven departure centers in Germany. (...) Collectively, we have experimented with cartographic representation in order to pose these questions: What kind of spaces does the German system of the administration of migrants produce? How do political and social circumstances appear geo-graphically? Which potential for analysis or evaluation is offered by a spatial representation? How can a critique of exclusion be formulated by means of mapping? How can the varying levels of state and institutional structure be brought into relation with those of individual experience? How is subjective knowledge transmitted by this?" (An Architektur with a42.org, 2008)
In fact, and as Maribel Casas-Cortes e Sebastian Cobarrubias point out so well on their analytical text derived from this map and titled "Drawing Escape Tunnels through the Borders: Cartographic Research Experiments by European Social Movements"13, the notion itself of "frontier" has been changing over time to a point where the current "logic of frontier" largely exceeds the geographic boundaries of the State-Nation, fractured into "internal frontiers" that segregate work, institutional and familial relationships, to name only a few, intensifying social inequalities and accentuating feelings of mistrust and social discrimination.
this climate of suspicion and fear that transverses the contemporary
experience by creating an ideological context for an expansive application
of surveillance devices--namely through closed circuit TV networks (CCTV)--,
the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA), in collaboration with Site-R,
counterattacks in this Atlas with the ironic and activist map Routes of Least Surveillance (2001/2007), based on the online application iSee14--developed by the collective for several
cities since 2001--which displays, in real-time, maps of the routes
least exposed to surveillance cameras.
Institute for Applied Autonomy in collaboration with Site-R, Routes of Least Surveillance, 2001/2007 (detail). Image kindly supplied by the collective.
The iSee project lays emphasis on a dynamic cartography in which localization and route are combined into subversive maps that highlight the creation of experimental, communal and creative strategies for appropriation and transformation of both media and new technologies--namely those that are central to the current "surveillance society"--as a means to enhance the sharing, creation and free flux of signals, things, people, actions, and affections. In an interview with Erich
W. Schienke, published in 2002 by the Surveillance & Society15 magazine, the IAA called attention to the potential of the iSee application when combined with locative media (on which they were already working), as the intersection between the two would eventually transform the application into a general purpose mapping instrument, open to the creative intervention of its users, specifically through GPS-enabled PDAs, who would thus be able to insert multiple data and narratives onto the maps.
2. Allegories of the Surveillance Society.
In fact, with the development of systems such as the Geographic Information System (GIS), which combines geographically indexed databases, satellite imagery, and GPS, as well as the proliferation of cell phones, laptops, and wireless technologies, the artistic and activist practices associated with locative media have become more prominent within the contemporary cultural and artistic scene, suggesting a "locational humanism" (Holmes, 2003b) and imagining the potential for collective action of the "smart mobs" (Rheingold, 2002) of the 21st Century. In his article "Open Cartographies: On Assembling Things through Locative Media", Michael Dieter writes:
"While explicitly framed as speculative, exploratory and anarchic, the close link established between a kind of materialist ontology and political emancipation has become a recurring trope in the commentaries on locative media. To a certain extent, the trend corresponds with a desire to transcend the limits of postmodern theorization and the apparent "elitism" of net.art, however, a range of competing motivations and influences have emerged in the diverse fields that have converged around the topic of augmented reality. For researchers Anne Galloway and Matt Ward, new archaeological techniques developed in conjunction with photography, GPS and cartographic mapping coincide through locative media as social platforms. This correlation is identified with the activation of static architectures in order to restore 'hope' through the transformation of urban landscapes." (Dieter, 2007: 198)
The activation and "rewriting" of the urban landscape brought about by the artistic practices associated with locative media must be considered in conjunction with a tendency to develop a cinematic and interactive architecture capable of creating a total immersion effect on the digital set16. This urban allegorization is translated into street culture and intervention, as is the case with the laser graffiti proposed by the Graffiti Research Lab, L.A.S.E.R Tag (2007); narrative and playful networked city in which space is mapped with messages recorded by cyclists who, alone, explore the city streets in search of "hideaway places" where to leave their stories and listen to those of others, in Rider
Spoke (2007) by Blast Theory; approximations to the situacionist dérive 17 as is the case with the singular
traces superimposed onto the urban cartography as those put forward
by Hugh Pryor and Jeremy Wood (GPS Drawing), and Ester Polak
in Real Time (2002); conversion and activism in the case of the Makrolab project (1997-2007) by Marko Peljhan, and the Transborder Tool for Immigrants (2007) by "artivist" Ricardo Dominguez.
"What we are witnessing today, however, is not a one-way delocalization or deterritorialization, but rather a volatile combination of the diffused and the positioned, or the placeless and the place-coded. Perhaps nowhere has this been more apparent than with mobile GIS and location-aware technologies. (…) Tracking has played a primary role in this shift. Its landscapes of inclination-position fuel the geospatial interfaces -- such as evidenced in Google Maps and the C5 GPS media player -- which are becoming important modes of access to any phenomenon." (Crandall, 2006)19
In effect, if the aesthetical form of the dérive has made a strong come back in our contemporary experience, be it under the guise of the individual in transit, freed from geographical constrains and available for new encounters through the always-on digital technologies, or through the nomadic navigation on the World Wide Web, never before have wanderings, routes and behaviors been this registered, stored and controlled20, true to the deleuzian concept of "dividual"21 - the current condition of the individual when reduced to a "data subject" (the result of an endless split between an individual's physical self and his/hers data representation) 22. We may thus say that today, more than ever, the imaginary maps, the ones that trace singular trajectories or create a people to come, are drawn in relationship to (and in tension with) a cartography of an overexposed territory, monitored by a gaze that never ceases to calculate and evaluate.
Thus, as David Lyon notes on «The End of Privacy» (Lyon, 2007), the contemporary "surveillance society"23--where location-aware corporations such as Digital Angel and VeriChip24 arise, along with the omnipresence of closed-circuit TV networks (CCTV) in urban spaces and the development of a new penology based on the prediction of risk and on the identification and management of the categorized groups according to different degrees of danger (Ericson, R. & Haggerty, K., 1997)--has been progressively replacing the criteria of public benefit with that of risk minimization in what concerns the assessment of public policies, a tendency which only gained strength since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. To question this new condition, to confront the technical apparatus, to subvert and experiment, to rise above its time, this is what we can and should expect from contemporary art.
"In order to work, surveillance systems depend on their subjects (indeed, as Foucault observed a long time ago, subjects become 'the bearers of their own surveillance' 1979). Although there is a sense in which the subjects of surveillance become 'objectified' as their data doubles become more real to the surveillance system than the bodies and daily lives from which the data have been drawn, their involvement with surveillance systems often remains active, conscious and intentional. People comply (but not as dupes), negotiate and at times resist the surveillance systems in which their lives are enmeshed." (Lyon, 2007: 55)
Faceless25 (2007), a film by Manu Luksch, is an excellent example of this resistance to the contemporary apparatus of surveillance in that it appropriates closed-circuit TV networks, deviating from their explicit purpose and endowing them with an experimental, artistic and activist dimension. Shot in London--the city in the world with the highest density of CCTVs--as part of the Manifesto for CCTV Filmmakers26, Faceless is entirely made from surveillance camera footage obtained by the artist under the UK Data Protection Act which gives the individual captured by the CCTVs the right to request a copy of his/hers footage. In "Faceless: Chasing the Data Shadow", Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel, who collaborated on the screenplay, state:
"Faceless treats the CCTV image as an example of a legal readymade (objet trouvé). The medium, in the sense of 'raw materials that are transformed into artwork', is not adequately described as simply video or even captured light. More accurately, the medium comprises images that exist contingent on particular social and legal circumstances - essentially, images with a legal superstructure. Faceless interrogates the laws that govern the video surveillance of society and the codes of communication that articulate their operation, and in both its mode of coming into being and its plot, develops a specific critique." (Luksch & Patel, 2007: 74)
Just as in the project Video Sniffin', developed by the collective MediaShed27, which includes the videos The Commercial (2006), Minä Olen (2006), The Duellist (2007), and Spy Kitting (2006-2007), in Faceless the city is transformed into a permanent film set and the act of creation becomes a gesture of appropriation and transformation of the omnipresent gaze of the surveillance cameras. In this context to create is to affectively populate a territory, to rescue it from the barrenness and lethargy in which the non-reciprocated gaze of the surveillance cameras had plunged it.
Faceless is the result of not only a brilliant conceptual intuition but also
of a subtle artistic work, manifest on the visual and the narrative
ways in which Manu Luksch appropriates the circles superimposed on the
faces of the recorded individuals, except for the artist herself, the
only visible face (an artifice legally imposed to owners of surveillance
cameras, for the screening of CCTV captured images, with the intent
of protecting the citizens' privacy).
Still from the movie Faceless (2007). Image kindly supplied by the artist.
In this Orwellian fable the fabulous voice of Tilda Swinton narrates the story of a strange city whose inhabitants have no face and live immersed in an eternal present, the real time, dictated by the scrutiny of the New Machine which has abolished the past and the future, and along with them guilt and unrest, but also any possibility to experience the real. Suddenly, one woman regains her face and with it the consciousness of herself and others, rediscovering the city and its areas of affect and freedom, just like the ones populated by the 'spectral children' with their colorful and clandestine dances to the sound of which the main character will regain, for brief moments, her memories, reuniting once more with those who are dear to her.
It is perhaps on the dance sequences (choreographed by Ballet Boyz), which take place in several of London's public spaces, that Faceless best expresses its strangeness and poetic activism, evoking the contradictory forces that connect us to the spaces we so often cross and forget to inhabit.
assessed, controlled, divided and owned: such is the complex condition
of contemporary space which may nevertheless become our territory if traversed by affects, bodies and gestures that inhabit it and make
it communal. It is this possibility that, in different ways, movies
like Faceless, the photographs and cartographies of Baumgarten,
and the maps of An Atlas of Radical Cartography address. In their
singularity and difference, these works of art offer evidence that the
creation of this emerging territory, this labor of geopoetics,
can't relinquish a relationship with technology and the media. On the
contrary: this is a political relationship and therefore an imperative
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|INFLeXions No. 3 (Oct. 2009)
Micropolitics: Exploring Ethico-Aesthetics
History through the Middle: Between Macro and Mesopolitics - an Interview with Isabelle Stengers