Another Atlas

Group exhibition
Curated by Joe Kalturnyk
RAW: Gallery of Architecture & Design,Winnipeg
8 March – 5 April 2013

This FUSE article from issue 36-3 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation.

Review by Milena Placentile

Critical analysis of the traditional functions of mapping has grown significantly in recent years, such that acknowledging maps as politically subjective cultural artefacts, and map-making as an act of imperialism, will seem quite obvious. This is in large part thanks to the valuable work of radical geographers, social historians and activist-artists who, among other thinkers, seek to dismantle systems of power. [1] An Atlas of Radical Cartography (2007), edited by Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat, played a notable role in this development by presenting a dynamic cross section of projects undertaken by progressive artists seeking to stimulate new ways of processing physical space and human relationships, and all that governs these various intersections.

Promotional text for the exhibition Another Atlas indicates that it builds on Mogel and Bhagat’s project of investigating power and social justice, while also declaring (somewhat broadly) that it “presents ways information can be gathered and how forms of mapping can be challenged.” As a curator concerned with transparency, I actively seek to understand how projects are established, and for what purpose. Because of this. I found it odd that an exhibition claiming to deliberate questions of power and the capacity for maps to reveal that which cannot be easily ascertained required that I conduct considerable research to establish basic facts; for example, the director of RAW, Joe Kalturnyk, is not only the author of the exhibition pamphlet but is also the curator. Speaking in person, he explained that his appreciation for An Atlas of Radical Cartography, and its later manifestation as a travelling exhibition called An Atlas, motivated him to recirculate selections from the show along with additional work by Canadian artists (many with ties to Winnipeg).

The promotional text emphasizes the political value of alternative mapping. The pamphlet, however, describes a different objective, declaring that all participating artists, architects, geographers and activists share the simple aim of reorganizing space. The substantial difference between objectives is a matter unto itself, but proceeding with the latter as the framework for viewing the work — or at least, the work that was available to me at the time of viewing — I am compelled to disagree. It strikes me that the artists are not seeking to reorganize space but rather to clarify phenomena, often giving form to the invisible. Those artists concerned with social, political and economic structures are working to encourage intersectional understanding.

Etienne Turpin’s four-print series Stainlessness (2013) is one strong case in point. Depicting significant moments in labour history, the plates identify industries and uprisings in Chicago, Sudbury, Pittsburgh and Detroit through natural and constructed landmarks, resources, technologies and prominent historical figures. The images emerge through the overlaying of topographical and urban infrastructure maps and archival photos to produce digital collages chemically etched onto magnesium plates, which are later inked for use with paper. Printed manually and not digitally, the works themselves look like historical artifacts. The remarkably intricate detail, however, including fine cross-hatching, gives them away as contemporary works (though the postmodern matrix of interdisciplinary thought is evidence enough). The work is as thoughtful as it is beautiful.

Ashley Hunt’s A World Map: in which we see… (2005) was included in An Atlas of Radical Cartography. Taking the form of a large infographic, it links the activities of global capitalism to poverty and other injustices, while tracking the growth and function of prisons as sites of social and economic violence and control. Bright and colourful, from a distance the work looks like a cross-sectioned unicellular organism. Upon closer inspection, it invokes the world as a cell attacked by a virus. This work is the product of intense research, and strives to help viewers find connections all too difficult to observe (or admit) from our individual locations within the whole.

Replacing points of interest conventionally highlighted on civic maps such as schools, religious sites and museums, An Architektur’s Geography of the Fürth Departure Center (2004), which was also part of the original compendium, illustrates the presence of various immigrant detention centres in Germany — calling attention to their various deplorable, prisonlike conditions. The piece effectively draws out the privilege of citizenship while showing where and how “others” are hidden away against their will.

I noted above that not all the work was available for viewing at the time of my visit. Caroline Blais’s video was projected onto gauzy fabric in front of a window, making it impossible to see the work even on a gloomy day. I contacted her to watch the work online, but I suspect others might not have similar means, opportunity or desire. [2] Also unavailable was Trevor Paglen and John Emerson’s CIA Rendition Flights 2001–2006 (2006). Knowing enough about Paglen’s solo work, I was confident that the absence of a physical artwork to address politically sanctioned kidnapping was not a conceptual decision, so the gallery should have acknowledged the missing work rather than leave the confused attendant without information. [3]

Apart from practical considerations that adversely impacted my ability to experience and reflect on the exhibition, Another Atlas struck me as being two only marginally related shows: one about mapping as a form of activism that reveals systems of power, and one about mapping time, space and nature. Turpin’s prints, although more traditionally narrative in aesthetic and form, bridged the two camps in small ways. But the very charged analysis of contemporary social and political issues demonstrated in works from Mogel and Bhagat’s compendium, was ultimately diluted by works that emphasized conceptual representation — in the form, for example, of datasets concerned with electromagnetics, sound from radio stations, and/or dreamy representations of oceans —rather than social justice. As such, whether it queried how mapping can challenge power or how it reorganizes space, the work did not necessarily benefit from being viewed in a single exhibition. Still, the opportunity to encounter the works described above made visiting the show time well spent.

NOTES:

[1] Frequent targets of these critical approaches include the if you define it, it’s yours mentality of colonization, as well as global capitalism’s ongoing erasure of barriers to finance while blocking the movement of people searching for better living conditions.

2] Blais’s video, by the way, is a nostalgic musing on time, space and movement of travel through digital collage, using vintage postcards and National Geographic–like travel imagery, along with stylized representations of the natural world. The curator suggested the work be projected through the window to be viewed at night. The gallery attendant was unaware of this.

[3] Paglen and Emerson’s work can be viewed online.

Milena Placentile is a Winnipeg-based curator and writer interested in the work of socially and politically engaged artists. Her latest exhibition, A Total Spectacle (2013), investigates the form and function of corporate distraction, while other research seeks to address the neoliberal privatization of arts and culture. She is
a FUSE contributing editor.

Image Credit: Etienne Turpin, Stainlessness (2013). Detroit, plate detail. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

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