Agents and Actors: Artists Who Make Maps or Engage in Situated, Locational Activities in Order to Challenge the Status Quo or Change the World

In the twentieth century, particularly during the destruction, chaos, and geo scrambling of World War I, avant-garde artists began not only to take on the iconography of the map but also to envision themselves in the roles of mapmakers, which is to say, capable of leveraging the authority of the map to change the shape of the world.

The Great War left millions dead, caused the disintegration of four empires, created new nations, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, granted independence to others (the Baltic states, Canada, etc.), and brought back old nations, such as Poland. During this redrawing of national borders, Tristan Tzara, a central organizer of the Dada art movement, wrote, ‘‘The world has gone insane; the artist makes fun of insanity – a gesture very sane, indeed. Throw away the old rules. Manipulate your chance. Dada is a virgin microbe that will get into your brain only in the places where the conventional is not present!’’ Dada reinforced the project of the artistic avant-garde that had begun more than 50 years earlier: to envision new futures, political utopias, and radical spiritual alternatives to the existing order. In their professed ideals, avant-garde projects valorize the new, critique established forms (of art making, politics, governance, culture, and class), while seeking to unify or transform art and ‘everyday life’ in varying degrees. In their numerous manifestations since Dada, avant-garde projects have consistently been absorbed by the art establishment and upheld as examples of fine art while simultaneously being critiqued as symbolic, bourgeois, homogeneous attempts at social change and revolution.

The artists discussed as ‘agents and actors’ pick up on the avant-garde project to leverage culture for social change. They use cartography from the standpoint of critical cartography, which is to say that they are aware of the power of maps and leverage that authority strategically in order to reshape the world from a social, political, or cultural standpoint.

Artists using maps in their work in the first half of the twentieth century often used them to critique or comment on war, inequality, and other geopolitical realities. For example, Dada artist Hannah Hoch made use of maps in her photomontage works that combined photos, illustration, and typography from mass media sources. Hoch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Epoch of Germany (1919–20) inserts a cutout map – of European countries that planned to give women the right to vote – in the lower righthand corner of the work among icons of industrial modernization, leaders of the Weimar Republic, and images of modern women, such as poets and athletes. Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rain I (1933) depicts an abstract European shape destroyed by war. Likewise, Picasso makes use of found maps and wallpaper in Women at Their Toilette (1938), where a collaged woman is depicted wearing a dress made of continents. Critics have read this piece as an allegory for the world at the edge of World War II.

Contemporary figures continue this tradition of geopolitical commentary and critique. Lize Mogel’s project, The Privatization of War (based on research by Dario Azzellini), geographically maps relationships among contemporary wars in Iraq and Colombia, the private military contractors hired to fight them, and the countries, often poor, from which these mercenaries are recruited. On this stark, black and white map, territory is represented by segmented cells occupied by corporations. The intent of the map is journalistic: to educate the public about the geographic flows of capital and labor involved in the Iraq War.

In a similar vein, Joyce Kozloff, who has a distinguished career using cartographic strategies in her artwork, created the project Targets (2000) that consisted of a large, walk in globe wallpapered with detailed paintings of US military maps of numerous ‘enemy’ countries such as Sudan, Libya, and Cambodia. Not only does this work problematize cartography as a tool of conquest and domination, but Targets also engages critically with a history of life size globes at international exhibitions – from Wylde’s Globe at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 to the Unisphere at the New York World’s Fair in 1964–65. Where the latter globes are meant to delight viewers with a visible world, Kozloff ’s globe intimidates with its large scale, all encompassing threat of military violence.

But activist mappers of the last 100 years also use humor, inversion, and play to denaturalize cartography and to strategically provoke their audiences. The Surrealist Map of the World (1929) depicts the world with many imperial powers missing (noticeably, the US, France, Canada, and Great Britain). Easter Island is bigger than Australia, Paris belongs to Germany, and the Middle East is entirely absent. Joaquın Torres Garcfa’s Upside down Map (1943) became an icon for the School of the South. It shows the South American continent inverted, with the southern tip at the top of the map and the equator at the bottom in a gesture in defiance of North–South hierarchical relationships: ‘‘the North is now below,’’ declared Torres Garcıa. The Upside down Map set a course for numerous other artists, geographers, educators, and others to question the default orientation and projection of the world map, notably Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Air Ocean World Map and Jasper Johns’ 1967 painting of the same title.

Fluxus maps had an additional political twist in that they called on the viewer/reader to ‘complete’ the mapmaking actions. Yoko Ono created several versions of Map Piece that consisted of instructions such as ‘‘Draw a map to get lost’’ (1964) and ‘‘Draw an imaginary map of your dreams’’ (2001). An early version in 1962 called on readers to draw an imaginary map and use it to navigate actual streets in an actual town. Map Piece resonates with the contemporaneous practices of the Situationist Internationale (SI). Drawing on this work in You Are Not Here (2006), a collaborative project created by Thomas Duc, Kati London, Dan Phiffer, Andrew Schneider, Ran Tao, and Mushon Zer Aviv, a guide leads tourists on walking audio tours of the war torn Baghdad through the New York City streets. Participants use maps printed with New York streets on one side and Baghdad streets on the other. In this case, the Fluxus poetry of using one place to navigate another is infused with political urgency, that is to say, the need to understand experientially the scope of human destruction in an era where images of remote wars resemble video game consoles.

Even though they did not produce much in the way of maps, it was the SI – a group spawned by late Surrealism that broke away from the French Lettrist movement – that had the most significant influence on map practices to come in the next 50 years. Guy Debord, leader of the SI, coined the terms ‘psychogeography’, ‘derive’, and ‘detournement’ to denote critical spatial practices that could be put to use by an individual in encountering and changing the rationalized, urban environment and the ‘society of the spectacle’. Together with Asger Jorn, Debord created The Naked City (1957), a map of Paris that envisioned its spaces in relation to psychogeographic energies, attractions, and repulsions. But the SI gave up creating art around 1962 and, thereafter, dedicated its energies to explicitly political projects, playing a key role in the French demonstrations of 1968. The key contribution from the SI, in relation to cartography, politics, and art, is that they set the stage for ‘mapping’ as an activity that was ‘performed’ through the individual human body in action in public spaces such as streets, parks, and plazas. Not only were artists taking on the role of mapmaker, but they were also taking on the roles of the surveyor, the photogrammetrist, and the data collectors, albeit in iconoclastic, idiosyncratic ways.

While many of the performative, activist cartographic practices that have followed the SI have multiple influences and operated without knowledge of the movement, many of these can be conceptually linked to the original questions that the SI posed about the individual or collective body encountering social and political space. These projects range from meditative to the explicitly political and concern not only urban space, but also suburban, rural, and uninhabited landscapes. One trajectory that persists today is the impulse to map ‘the radically specific’ – the very small, the hyperpersonal or the overlooked facets of the environment. Richard Long’s art practice (late 1960s to present), for example, consists of solitary, multiday walks in locations around the world. He considers the walks ‘sculptures’ and documents them via short texts, photographs, and gallery installations using natural materials that measure the individual’s temporal presence up against a vast landscape.

Likewise, in Teri Rueb’s Choreography of Everyday Movement (2001), dancers carry global positioning system (GPS) receivers during the course of their everyday activities. Each person’s daily movement created a real time drawing on the web. The artist later printed these drawings on acetate and stacked them between sheets of glass, overlaying 1 day on top of the next so viewers could see how a particular person’s daily itinerary through the city had changed. In recent years, this trajectory of the radically specific has led to yearlong research projects to map a single city block in New York City (One Block Radius by Glowlab, 2004), a map of pumpkins on porches in the neighborhood of Boylan Heights, NC (Boylan Heights pumpkin map by Denis Wood, 1982), and a map of silent places in London (Silent London, Simon Elvins, 2005). In their own quiet way, these projects make a political case that challenges the authority, embedded value system, and perceived utility of the map by displacing our attention to things that are definitively small, everyday, and personal. A second contemporary trajectory influenced by the Situationists might be called ‘experimental geography’, a term coined in 2002 by Trevor Paglen, artist and geographer at UCLA and the title of an exhibition curated by Nato Thompson for the Independent Curators International (2008). With an explicitly social and political orientation, these projects pick up on the Situationist’s use of performance and on Fluxus strategies of participation to map the complex territories of a globalized, informationalized world. Paglen’s own project consists of a long term, multifaceted investigation into the Central Investigation Agency (CIA)’s ‘black world’: a shadowy underworld of secret prisons, illegal torture, and classified operations. Exhibitions of his work display artifacts collected on his investigative journeys around the world: signatures of people who do not exist at particular places, logos of false companies with fake addresses, and photos of planes that are not supposed to be where he finds them. Paglen’s work challenges the notion, popularized since GoogleEarth, that the whole world is now visible, mappable, and knowable. He charts precisely those geographic places that are deliberately hidden from the public eye.

Other projects interrogate land use, ownership, inequality, borders, and diasporic notions of identity and belonging. In 2006, Lauren Rosenthal created a new atlas of the USA entitled Political/Hydrological : A Watershed Remapping of the Contiguous United States that reimagines state boundaries around freshwater systems. In this ecocentric vision, watershed divides act as territorial borders, allowing citizens to locate themselves within the river networks upon which they depend. In Emily Jacir’s project Where We Come From (2001–03) the Palestinian American artist invited Palestinians living abroad, who had limited or no access to their homeland, ‘‘If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?’’ She then used her American passport to fulfill their requests, which ranged from playing soccer with children to placing flowers on a mother’s grave. The exhibition consists of a moving collection of photographs and texts that document these experiences.

Other contemporary art projects that fall in the category of experimental geography take the form of tools. The Institute for Applied Autonomy, for example, created iSee (2001–present), a web based software application that would chart ‘the path of least surveillance’ through New York City. Users need only plug in the beginning and end coordinates of their journey through Manhattan, and the application spits out a printable map that takes the traveler past the fewest number of surveillance cameras. Numerous artists, community groups, and activists have created collectively authored maps with free mapping tools provided by Internet companies such as Google and Flickr. These chart everything from Romantic places to Greenpeace expeditions to international graffiti sites.

Many action oriented projects exist at the borders of cartography, less directly referencing the visual language of maps but nonetheless consisting of collections of geographic places with a specific focus (a process of ‘mapping’). In The Pansy Project (2005–present), Paul Harfleet plants pansies wherever people report being victims of homophobic verbal or physical abuse, a way of reclaiming both homophobic language (‘pansy’) and the geographic site of trauma or abuse. Using his body, Alex Villar stages Temporary Occupations (2004) of private spaces that border on public spaces in New York City. The video shows a series of clips of the artist gracefully jumping fences and slipping behind boundaries of private areas that are adjacent to the New York sidewalks, calling into question the purpose of these lines of demarcation. The project Mapping the Working Coasts of Maine (2005) by the collective spurse was designed to interrogate the changing demographics, ecosystems, and industries of the Maine coasts, as more people travel there for tourism or to live there permanently. To this end, spurse traveled up the coast of Maine in a boat (their ‘laboratory’) interviewing coastal workers and residents and asking them to draw psychogeographic maps of the changing social, cultural, and natural landscape around them. In many of the process oriented mapping projects, public conversation, dialog, and community building are inseparable from the art. Indeed, many of these projects use anomalous, idiosyncratic actions (planting pansies, jumping fences, putting a conversation lab on a boat, etc.) in order to provoke public engagement, raise awareness about the larger issues at stake, and, ultimately, catalyze transformative, collective action.