After several years obsessively following a cluster of artists, investigators, cartographers and academics interested in varied approaches to human interactions with the land, I was excited to learn that the Experimental Geography exhibition, which showcases many of these projects and highlights the evocative associations that bind them together as a group, would be on view where I could see it, in the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center. The exhibition, on tour since September of 2008 with a corresponding book published by Melville House in early 2009, is here in New York City until the end of August. On July 20th, I attended a panel discussion at CUNY featuring the curator, several contributing artists, and social theorist David Harvey, which drew out some of the themes of the exhibition in an attempt to define the ‘emerging’ practice of experimental geography.
Connecting a “growing body of culturally inspired work,” as curator Nato Thompson describes it, Experimental Geography asks many questions about the interaction between the aesthetic and the geographic, between urban and geological scales, between the poetic and didactic. As he clarified in the panel discussion on July 20th, these questions are largely about the “aesthetic approach to the interpretation of space as a social phenomenon,” inspiring the discussion’s frequent name-dropping (and some works’ implicit referencing) of Karl Marx, the Situationists and Henri Lefebvre. The exhibition ranges from an archive of 23 maps that include world governments and U.S. camp sites (the We Are Here Map Archive) to a listening booth of GPS-guided audio bus tours (e-Xplo) to a photograph of milk boiling in a tin from the heat of a live volcano’s sulfur spring (Ilana Halperin, above).
Looking toward a ‘politics of spatialization’ rather than one of representation, this is no traditional landscape photography fare. How might we think about contemporary security culture in the city of Boston? Listen to kanarinka’s psychogeographic It Takes 154,000 Breaths to Evacuate Boston, a table of glass jars containing speakers, each of which plays the recorded sounds of her fearful breath as she ran out of the city on its different evacuation routes. What subtle spatial elements structure our everyday urban experience, and how do they play upon our movement and subjectivity? View Alex Villar’s Upward Mobility, a filmed performance of the artist subverting the conventions of city planning, absurdly/tragically attempting to navigate a horizontal city through vertical climbs.
None of the eighteen pieces fall strictly into “geography” or “art” camps, though the degree and direction of the interaction between the two disciplines varies. Experimental Geography’s strength lies here, plainly enough, in the conjunction of the two elements in its title. True to the meaning of experimental, none of the pieces offer conclusive answers, leaving room for an immense amount of interpretation and speculation. This kind of artistic practice, taking place within a geographic sphere that encompasses all human activity, allows relations otherwise unrevealed in either field alone to emerge, connecting research, mapping, material production, and human subjectivity.
Take, for example, Multiplicity’s The Road Map (above), a two-channel video projection of drives through the West Bank zone surrounding Jerusalem. The two journeys, one with an EU passport containing Israeli permissions and one Palestinian, measure the density of border controls in this area as experienced by two different possible travelers. The results – 01:05 vs. 05:20 hours, respectively – convey an immersive sense of frustration, documented as well on smaller television screens displaying slowly scrolling maps of the two different drives along the same latitude. Blending non-traditional academic measurement with a fresh, tangible experience of political space as constituted by highways, checkpoints, taxis and dirt roads, geography here acts as both an influence on and subject of visual research.
Some works are less successful in the context of the exhibition. Spurse’s Micromobilia (pictured above), a research station-cum-archive-cum-pseudo-classroom-space unfolded out of three crates, consists of a heady mix of dense chalkboard charts, books on systems theory/biology/geology/microbiology and beyond, catalogued specimens at numerous scales, and standard scientific equipment encased in Styrofoam (as if specimens of a different order). Spurse’s intent here is to create a “geography of participation” in which the borders of disciplinary research collapse, allowing for a new site of engagement and co-production. Yet when I tried to remove a folder from its encasement in an attempt to participate in this sort-of-laboratory, I was told by a gallery attendant not to touch it. Seeing the work as an aesthetically-minded academic archive of possible engagements instead of an active space to use, I could now only imagine spurse’s process of crafting and assembling Micromobilia with a sense of envy for those who put it together with full access to its materials.
In some instances, Thompson’s curatorial intention to define experimental geography as a broad and inclusive practice did a disservice to some of the works on view. For example, a set of one dozen exhibition posters from the Center for Land Use Interpretation – an organization I share Thompson’s opinion about as an example par excellence of this sort of thing – did not convey a sense of CLUI’s hundreds of hours of meticulous research, documentation, and unique presentational formats. Trevor Paglen’s contributions were a limited sampling of images from an otherwise very impressive and singular body of previous work. The We Are Here Map Archive, gathered by Daniel Tucker, was on the other hand a sizeable collection of recent cartographical forms and tools, able to be taken out of a folio and examined up-close on a table. The prevalence of notebooks and pens among my fellow visitors suggested that the fragmentary nature of the exhibition materials left viewers hungry for more: I got the sense that many people looking around the James Gallery were going to go home and look up the vast tomes of research and information merely hinted at by the works displayed.
If participation and experimentation emerged as crucial aspects of my experience with Experimental Geography, July’s panel discussion missed the mark. You may not have known from this review of theorist David Harvey’s contribution to the discussion, but a full panel was present, including Nato Thompson and three artists in the exhibition: radical cartographer Lize Mogel, military geographer/photographer Trevor Paglen, and spurse collaborator Iain Kerr. Very interesting presentations by all present gave way to a familiar sense of academic stagnation as the Q&A concentrated almost entirely upon Harvey’s derision of the ‘suburbanization’ of New York City, a discussion which Mr. Kerr (and I, internally) severely questioned in relation to the more fundamental aims of the exhibition. A Marxist analysis of the emancipatory potential of either an anti- or post-capitalist mode of spatial production is not what is most interesting, vital (or new) about the pairing of geography and art.
Signaling Experimental Geography as a practice is certainly valuable as a “platform for interpreting the world that makes us who we are,” as the exhibition brief states, but it is an expressly visual, often tactile platform. Harvey’s work, in the tradition of Kropotkin, Reclus, and Lefebvre, does group together many of the relevant forces at work in contemporary spaces, but his position on the relationship between capitalism and urban experience did not inform a second viewing of the exhibition, nor reveal a sensitivity to the visual, tactile or experiential elements in the work displayed, nor provide many original avenues for a spatialization of politics. (The ironically conspicuous presence of plastic Poland Spring water bottles on stage was also pointed out by an audience member in the beginning of the Q&A, but was generally ignored.)
Despite any qualms over ‘presentation vs. spatialization’, or the commentary at the panel discussion, the exhibition is something to be experienced and engaged by everyone. There is plenty of work to see that I haven’t mentioned, including the ever-expanding gallery of visitor-created maps of New York City. As Trevor Paglen notes in his essay on the exhibition, geography is not just about space, but entails its own space of inquiry. And Experimental Geography (in both exhibition and book form) does just that.
Experimental Geography is on view June 24th-August 27th at the James Gallery, CUNY Graduate Center
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Sam Silver is a project associate at Urban Omnibus. He is a student at Wesleyan University where he majors in environmental studies and philosophy.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.