Apr/May 2009

The New Geography

A Roundtable

Jeffrey Kastner, Tom McCarthy, Nato Thompson, and Eyal Weizman


The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.
—Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 1967

The practice of geography is by its nature a ticklish, paradoxical enterprise. It is at once the study of objects and of subjects, of things and of behaviors, of the world around us as a phenomenon producing human activity and produced by it. A realization of the generative potential in such dichotomies—between the material and the symbolic, between places as conceived and places as experienced, between spatial and temporal models of existential understanding—has long influenced the academic discipline of geography. And in today’s world, where the familiar order of things seems increasingly contingent and fluid, destabilized by political and military turmoil, economic upheaval, and rapid technological development, a similar impulse among artists, writers, architects, and other cultural producers to interrogate and reimagine conventional notions of the physical and social landscape we inhabit grows only more vivid.

Each of the participants in this roundtable has developed innovative and unique practices that engage questions of space. Tom McCarthy’s role, since 2000, as a conceptual provocateur in the “semi-fictitious avant-garde network” known as the International Necronautical Society (INS) finds literary expression in his first novel, Remainder (2007), in which an unnamed protagonist, almost killed by a piece of high-tech debris that falls from the sky, awakens from a coma with his worldview permanently altered. Obsessed with finding a sense of heightened authenticity in the world around him, he’s driven to replay, to literally reenact, certain resonant moments that challenge his (and the reader’s) notions of space and time, as well as the kinds of activities—mundane and exceptional—that necessarily take place in both constructs. Nato Thompson’s work as a curator and writer has consistently examined the potential of social space as an arena for the artistic production of meaning. He persistently probes the idea, as he’s written, that, “ultimately, all phenomena resolve themselves in space. Cultural and material production are not simply abstract ideas, but are forces that shape who and what we are, and they do so in places we can walk to, intervene in, and tour.” Architect and theorist Eyal Weizman, meanwhile, has long focused his scholarship on the relationship between architecture and planning and the intractable social, political, and military conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis. Weizman is the author of Hollow Land (2007), which, he writes, “looks at the ways in which the different forms of Israeli rule inscribed themselves in space, analyzing the geographical, territorial, urban and architectural conceptions and the interrelated practices that form and sustain them.”

The four of us, two in London and two in New York, held a conversation within the spatially indeterminate surroundings of the Internet over the course of a week early last February from which the following transcript is taken.

—JEFFREY KASTNER

JEFFREY KASTNER: The initial inspiration for this conversation was that each of your practices involves novel forms of engagement with ideas around “geography”—an expansive and fluid topic, to be sure, but one that (following its linguistic roots, literally “writing the earth”) might be most usefully understood here as an examination of relationships between spatial and discursive practices. Could each of you talk a little bit about your work via this notion of “writing” into existence certain alternative modes of understanding things like mapping, navigation, position/perspective, and the connections between ideologies and the built environment?

TOM MCCARTHY: Writing the earth is absolutely what my work is about: the violence of inscription. I remember flying over the Nazca Lines in Peru as a teenager and seeing this whole cosmogony laid out in earth-scraped geometries and symbols, then reading, a little later, the section in Of Grammatology where Derrida pooh-poohs Lvi-Strauss’s claim that the Nambikwara tribe, who mark the earth in similar fashion to the Nazca, don’t have writing. This type of original inscription is where it all begins for me: It opens up the possibility of literature, politics (the classical polis, after all, is no more than a space demarcated by boundary lines), history—the lot.

In my novel Remainder, there’s a forensic aesthetic, the sense that “everything must leave some kind of mark.” The protagonist spends lots of his time reading these marks or, more precisely, slotting himself into them, like a gramophone needle into a groove, and replaying them through reenactments. Under the banner of the INS, my collaborators and I have looked at issues of cartography, returning to moments of brute inscription: Melville’s Queequeg, for example, copying the tattoos from his body onto his coffin, recarving what’s already carved across his flesh—in this case (as for the Nazca), a cosmogony, a map of the earth and heavens, and a meta-map as well, what Melville calls “a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.”

NATO THOMPSON: “Experimental Geography,” the show I recently curated, includes artistic practices that consider humans’ relationship to the earth. They range from category-defying groups, like the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Multiplicity, and the Center for Urban Pedagogy, to what I would call more ambiguous practices, like the work of Francis Als and Ilana Halperin. Of course, within this framework there was also room for a myriad of countercartographic practices. But ultimately, the exhibition came out of a simple observation: An extremely com- plicated discipline is emerging, and a new formula is required to understand it.

I borrowed the term experimental geography from my friend Trevor Paglen, whose doctoral work at UC Berkeley combines the tools of urbanism and cultural geography with those of contemporary art. Using both tool sets (and the fields that inform them) allows him to consider knowledge as a complicated performance. Deploying reflexivity and an awareness of the aesthetics of truth telling, his work provides an interesting point of departure for thinking about the land.

EYAL WEIZMAN: I also find useful the cartographic/linguistic idea of writing and reading the earth, undertaken on many scales, although when I examine the logic and performance of spatial violence, there are also things outside the text. Almost all spatial conflicts have rearticulated, in different ways, a certain principle: To be governed, the city/territory must be constantly redesigned. This doesn’t only mean a search for a stable and governable urban form or organization, but also that the constant transformation of space is the way conflicts are played out. Unpredictability and the appearance of anarchy are part of this violent logic of disorder. The nature of the transformation obviously includes the complementary acts of strategic form making: construction and destruction but also the rechanneling of movement—walling and unwalling that are practiced on different scales, from the geopolitical to the domestic—and interference in the symbolic and lived orders of space.

Violence is a kind of performance that does not take place within the fixed grids of space, but actually remakes it. For example, the destruction of homes and other built structures could be understood as an active form of space making, having a cumulative effect on the creation of new spaces and affecting people through trauma. The grid of roads that destroyed homes as it was carved through the fabric of the refugee camps of Gaza has been remade every few years since Ariel Sharon did it for the first time in 1971—a demonstration of the way the military sees the elasticity of space as a mechanism of control. Elastic space does not mean that it is less lethal or that it is to be thought of as benign, but that it is constantly remade, reflecting military and political realities and resistance to them. If the in-consistencies of politics (as with all other aspects of life) are registered in the contours of spaces, then formal and topological analysis is useful in comprehending political/military processes otherwise hidden because of their slower temporalities.

JK: I’m curious to know to what degree you think your disparate approaches dovetail, either theoretically or practically, and on what terms. I wonder if the frag-mentation and elasticity underlying a supposedly stable, static sociospatial envi-ronment, which Eyal discussed, are also at work in Tom’s and Nato’s projects—in the interventions of the INS into systems of communication and bureaucracy and in the psychogeographic distortions of Tom’s novel; in Nato’s “Experimental Geography” exhibition and his “Interventionists” show, which was accompanied by a catalogue titled Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life. There’s a sense of political stakes in these projects, even though it’s perhaps not as immediate as it is in some of Eyal’s work.

TM: This notion of “disruption” might be key. The INS did an elaborate project at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, where we broadcast a string of messages over the radio, around the clock. They were short lines of poetry or, perhaps, provocations to do something: Each one began with the words “Calling all agents,” a line we took from William Burroughs. The other influence was Jean Cocteau’s film Orphe, in which a dead poet transmits lines of text over the radio. Cocteau got the idea from the wireless messages sent by the British to the French Resistance during World War II: They’d transmit these lines of poetry, most of which meant nothing, but one in every thousand of which meant “Now blow up the bridge!” or “Now assassinate the colonel!” So you’ve got this overlay of the aesthetic, the technological, and the political—territories of occupation and resistance, acts (again) of violence. The historical template is compelling: I like the notion that both occupiers and occupied listened to these lines during the war and that any one of them had the potential to make something catastrophic happen. All poetry should contain that potential, somehow.

NT: I often think that people’s interest in geography (or space, for that matter) came out of a malaise of theory. Academics and artists, particularly those with any desire for social change, wanted to literally ground the abstractions of postmodernism. In this sense, many Marxist geographers would claim that of course ideas happen in space, that subjectivity is produced in space. We can walk to a building that houses a biotech firm, an art museum, or a CIA front company, and we can say that the discursive spaces of biotech, art, and militarism are produced in part at these sites. This is what makes these disruptions so interesting and the idea of occupation that Tom alludes to so compelling. When we consider spatial metaphors in terms of a strategic methodology for how to produce meaning in the world, we use terms like occupation, squatting, trespassing, disrupting, and intervening—all strategies for developing a tangible resistance to formations of meaning. Physical borders are important to transgress because they are representations of power and control that move far beyond space, into the production of a public.

EW: I want to retell an anecdote from the land of elastic control. In 2004, the first cases were filed in which Palestinian farmers took the state of Israel to the local high court of justice. When their lawyer, Mohammad Dahlah, presented the appeal, he used maps and slide presentations to describe the case in all its geographic com-plexities, including a particular issue with the location of olive groves on a slope facing the 1949 border. After listening for a while, the judges said they didn’t understand and asked the petitioners to come back with a model. The petitioners commissioned a company that produces military-training models to make the model and then drew two lines on it: one in red (the path along which the Ministry of Defense contractors had started to build the wall) and the other in blue (their suggestion for a line that, although built within the occupied area, was a little less invasive and left the groves with the villagers).

When the model was finally called for, the porters didn’t know where to place it. Somebody finally brought a table from the cafeteria and placed it in front of the judges’ bench, but they couldn’t see it. So for the first time ever, they stepped down and also asked the parties to step closer. It thereafter seemed that the “object quality” of the model and the situation introduced a new type of legal choreography; the usual legal structure was disrupted, which also changed the discourse and its content. The legal dis-cussion about an alternative, “less invasive” path was undertaken with all parties—judges, villagers, activists, and lawyers for both sides—“navigating the terrain” and demonstrating their points while bending over the model.

The parties designed a new path then and there. The groves stayed with the villagers, but for me, the model is the clearest material embodiment of the “lesser evil” doctrine that sometimes allows human rights lawyers to argue on behalf of Palestinians about the excess of violations without challenging the framing conditions. So I find several relevant things here: First, that the model operated not only as a representation but as an object around which a certain dis-cussion was organized, and second, that the “flexibility” of the wall is what allowed the “participation” of the villagers in the design of the mechanism of their dispossession and their “improvement”—which, in weakened form, is pretty much the case with planning in many contemporary cities.

TM: That’s a great story. It reminds me of what Thomas Hirschhorn did at Documenta some years back: this big papier-mch landscape mapping the thought of Georges Bataille. Your example is much more socially direct, of course—although, interestingly, Hirschhorn made his model in collaboration with an immigrant-worker community on the outskirts of Kassel. Both examples make tangible a set of abstract arguments (justice, law, agency, etc.).

But then maps are always arbitrary and contested. The Situationists understood this arbitrariness and its implications. That’s why they remade maps by superimposing Algeria on France. The Surrealists, too. Their world map is hilarious: The United States is gone completely, and Mexico (thanks to the presence there of Frida Kahlo) is huge. My favorite map is Lewis Carroll’s from The Hunting of the Snark: It’s pure white, “a perfect and absolute blank.”

NT: It’s interesting to think about the way in which spatializing theoretical discussions resolves them in a different manner. This maneuver features prominently in Multiplicity’s project Solid Sea 03: The Road Map, which took place around Jerusalem. By mapping in time and space the road trip of a person carrying an Israeli passport and of one carrying Palestinian identity papers, they were able to show the differences in the experience of space. It’s a fascinating method for making physical and personal these deeply geopolitical conditions. The Center for Urban Pedagogy also uses maps in order to get children to consider methods for trash removal in their cities.

I am particularly intrigued by the idea of making abstract phenomena concrete, in order to consider political solutions to large-scale conditions of injustice. There are, of course, other forms of aesthetic interrogation that I would not put in this category. I suspect some of Tom’s examples of imagi-native cartography would fall under this. To go from an aesthetic interrogation of spatial production in a city to actual policy is a peculiar moment worth thinking about in depth. For example, Trevor Paglen’s work on secret prisons in the United States (while clearly not the sole effort) was part of a large movement to make visible the consequences of the Bush administration’s secret policies.

TM: I think it’s all political. How can a map ever not be? The Hunting of the Snark, to use my earlier example, one that I suspect you’d relegate to the category of the “merely” aesthetic, isn’t just comic entertainment: It’s about the catastrophic collapse of a project that’s at once imperial (setting out across the ocean to capture something), economic (the crew includes a banker and a broker, equipped with a railway share), ontological (what is a snark, anyway?), and so on. Really good art and literature is always political—perhaps all the more so the less directly it seems to be. In a way (I’m being provocative here, but I believe this, too), engaging with the symbolic order directly, with the realm of meaning, hacking right into its source code, is more radical than taking meaning for granted in order to simply make a statement.

NT: I am of two minds on this. First, I agree that everything is political, in the sense that it exists in the world. I also agree that works in the symbolic order can have interesting political consequences. But I am sure we would all agree that not all things working in the symbolic order in fact do have them. I must say that cultural production has made hacking into the symbolic order in any way that has meaningful political results increasingly difficult. I suspect that’s why approaches in geography become more interesting as the symbolic order increasingly becomes a site for capital’s voracious appetite. The question perhaps is, How do problems in space resolve themselves in the symbolic order? Or, conversely, How do skirmishes in the symbolic order resolve themselves in space?

TM: But my point is that the symbolic order is itself political—indeed, the very possibility of political consciousness resides there. (How could you have political thought or action without meaning?) I think perhaps the “resolution” bit is the sticking point here. Art doesn’t resolve anything: I’ll gladly accept that. Instead, it intensifies the problems, producing surplus meanings left, right, and center. That in itself is subversive—subversive toward any dom-inant regime of understanding or interpretation, at the very least.

JK: This distinction between the symbolic and the tangible has obviously long been at the center of conversations about the differences between “artistic” and “political” practices. I doubt we’re going to put it to rest here, but I think we can all agree that the spatial environment is a particularly promising site for working on these prob-lems. Perhaps as a way to bridge this, I can cite a passage from Hollow Land, where Eyal talks about the spatial organization of the occupied territories as “a kind of ‘political plastic,’ or as a map of the relation of all the forces that shaped it”—an array that includes official governmental bodies, the military, corporations, and so forth, but also more discursive things like the media and political activists. What’s intriguing to me about this is not the idea of the map as a symbolic representation of real space, but the notion of actual space itself as a map of the forces acting within it.

EW: I agree that the physical terrain/built environment could itself be thought of as a map. This is obviously a property not of the object/landscape but of the way we decode it. If territories are shaped by a multiplicity of diffused practices and forces, then we could try to read the way these abstract dynamics have slowed into form. I agree with what I sensed as Nato’s skepticism, namely that nothing is political in itself merely because power relationships are at work through it. Maybe we should reserve the term politics for more fundamental actions that change the way social forces come into play, rather than direct participation in the play of forces that structure a situation according to a dominant language.

TM: I’m very taken by this notion of physicality and plasticity. I love the example of the explorer Ernest Shackleton setting out to conquer and map the blank, uncharted space of the southern polar region, and how that very blank space itself, the tabula rasa of sea, turned material: The water froze around him and first trapped, then crushed, his ship. It’s like Deleuze’s notion of haptic space, which he opposes to classical distance and perception. His example is the Eskimo in snow: A spot on which his vision alights could be five miles away or a flake in front of his nose; space becomes tangible, close-up, all around you; you don’t dominate it with your gaze and your perspective anymore.

For me, this type of materiality lies at the heart of the practice of poetry. The prose poems of the mid-twentieth-century French writer Francis Ponge, for example, all revolve around a simple question, How do we depict things through language? He describes trying to “express” an orange, express being a word that has the dual sense of both representing and squeezing. When you do this, you may get some juice out of the orange (which, being globe-shaped, is a stand-in for the world), but you’ll always leave a husk behind, and the orange, given back over to its own plasticity, will resume, or partially resume, its original shape. Matter will always elude attempts to abstract it: There will always be a remain-der. According to this line, what most resists dominant mappings is not alternative map-ping but rather the territory itself, its sheer materiality. Perhaps with Eyal’s story, what was really going on was not people using the model to impose their readings on the land, but rather, through the model, letting the physical landscape mold their understanding and decisions: They became passive in front of its materiality.

EW: I think that Tom’s description of abstract space turning material also captures what war does to space. The historian Stephen Kern thought that WWI should be understood as the shuttering of space and time, and he described the combined effects of camouflage and artillery as the collapsing of the geometric order of front lines and territories. Gertrude Stein described bomb-ings that blended disfigured landscapes with the remains of machines, buildings, and people in terms of Cubism’s undoing of the difference between object and background.

I think that beyond the various justifications Israeli officials have given throughout the years for their destruction of the refugee camps, there is a certain consistent logic. The war against the refugees is undertaken by the reshaping of their built environment. This is done with a combined power to both destroy and affect the construction. It was incredible to hear politicians last winter speaking about “reconstruction” in Gaza while the bombing was still taking place. Destruction is often followed by development attempts that combine welfare and architecture to replace the refugee camp with “housing projects.” One of the aims is to break the historical, spatial, and social continuity of the camp and, with it, the collective political identity of the refugees. So, again, a violently imposed spatiality becomes part of an attempt to affect political subjectivities.

NT: There is a group calling itself Right to the City that is rapidly growing in major urban areas. Borrowing from Lefebvre to some degree, this group is also sorting through political conditions as they manifest in the built environment. It is both an idea and an organization, so the idea of the right to the city becomes somewhat convoluted, but I do find it very exciting.

In March of last year, Daniel Tucker (the editor of a great journal on space in Chicago called AREA) and I took a trip to Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City as part of a large project I worked on for Creative Time called “Democracy in America.” We met in round-table discussions with artists who considered their work a form of activism. What became apparent was that urban renewal and the restructuring of cities was clearly the largest issue in every city. These conditions of “the camp” and reconstruction along racial and demographic lines are endemic to cities across the globe. I believe Ayreen Anastas referred to it as the Israelization of the globe. This might wash over some important dis-tinctions, but I do think that these conditions of political spatialization have the potential to unite a vast array of social-justice move-ments. It’s an interesting line of political dis-cussion that can connect the concerns of Palestinians and Israelis to the gentrification battles in Barcelona, So Paulo, New Orleans, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Pilsen in Chicago.

EW: Although Foucault’s point about the twentieth century being the era of space rather than of time was rhetorical, I still think we should speculate about what political forms of agency are enabled by the foregrounding of spatial practices. For architects—who believe themselves the makers of space—thinking about space in an active and politically enabling manner requires being attuned to the indeterminate nature of political processes. This was one of the reasons for founding the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, which is made up of spatial practitioners—architects, artists, activists, filmmakers, and curators—who are invited to work in a roundtable mode on approaches to research and polit-ical intervention.

With all the love for a multidisciplinary, peer-to-peer culture, I am still rather careful about not undoing expert knowledge as a gesture of democratization and liberation, and I am also not sure how much I am in agreement with a Lefebvrian tripartite division of space or the turning to local practices and daily practices as sites of resistance to power. There is one space as there is one world, and countercartography (also a term I am not sure about—as if cartography is, by itself, the domain of evil powers rather than a tool of action) must not necessarily adopt a less technologically ambitious, more mundane feel that only reinforces the imposed division of colonizer/colonized or state/people. I also think that placing rights versus power could sometimes end up as an appeal for the moderation of power’s excess and replace more fundamental questioning. So a right to the city must be articulated as a program, rather than a critique, and this means it should work not only from the bottom up.

NT: I think this question of what forms of political agency are enabled by foregrounding space is an important one. I suspect the answer, to some degree, dovetails with the concern over specifying local practices as a site of resistance to power. When we found that many artists and activists were working on gentrification issues (a sort of umbrella statement for a myriad of urban issues), I think it was specifically the ability to maneuver agency toward a precise concern. The fact that a specific corner or housing complex becomes a site of resistance can provide a much more tangible framework for action. This, of course, came out of a post-9/11, post-antiglobalization country where many activists had turned toward the local after the fracturing (in the United States) of a large-scale political movement. The opportunity to connect the conditions of power within local issues of space to larger geopolitical conditions of spatial production does have an (almost inevitable) appeal.

Finally, I would also like to add that I am sympathetic to considering forms of spatial production from the vantage of policy (that is to say, not always from below), but I am wary of conditions of oppression that tend to result from any type of logic other than bot-tom up. Often, by the time we have reached the level of architecture or city planning, the questions that are being answered have little to do with the majority of the inhabitants being affected. Recently, one of the founders of the Center for Urban Pedagogy became a planner for the City of Newark. cup dedi-cates itself to a radical pedagogy of urbanism, and I am interested and excited at the possibility of someone like this stepping into the shoes of someone like Robert Moses. What will happen?

Advertisement