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The Thickness of a Map, the Thickness of a Line

Last summer the New Museum opened its exhibition, Here and Elsewhere, as survey of contemporary artwork from the “Arab world.” Apparently aware that such a generalized worlding has a loaded, racializing history tied to the European Orientalist gaze – implications that resonate through European art history – the curators assembled a sprawling exhibition of heterogeneous work eliding outside classification, or directly confronting stereotypes, or, as in the case of Bouchra Khalili’s Mapping Journey Project, redirecting the representational force of a visual system: the map.

At the New Museum, the Mapping Journey Project was installed as a series of videos projected onto hanging screens, each accompanied by headphones for listening. The videos are interviews of individuals who have experienced a long journey of migration. Onscreen, we can see a close-up of the map on a table, shot from above and cropped to the edges of the image, with the narrator’s hands reaching across to draw lines corresponding to their story. English subtitles accompany their vocal narratives, which detail days of duress in detention centers, ongoing struggles with states and documentation, encounters with the sentinels of fortress Europe, and encounters with traffickers who may or may not be trusted. Their faces are offscreen, but their hands, gestures and speech are highly personal, intimate although we cannot see them.

Systems of representation, such as the “Western” map that Khalili’s subjects cross and mark, are magnified by the interaction of the systems’ parts with each other, with human beings, and with materials both conceptual and tangible. In other words, aesthetic systems exist only through practice, and not as fixed relations or structures in and of themselves. Artists often twist or intervene with aesthetic regimes, exploiting their precarity to tip them out of balance and reveal the previously unconscious structure beneath.

Much tireless work has been done in the fields of art, activism and writing to cut the ties that thread together the centuries-old aesthetic systems of colonialism, Orientalism and white supremacy through new representations of bodies and people; and, particularly in recent decades, much still is being done to puncture or redirect the power of the map. From its modern conception in the Enlightenment sciences, when anthropometrics and geography constituted the same academic interest for European geographers, mapping has been a conflicted mode of representation in need of decoupling from its imperial, hierarchical foundation.

This bloodied history weighed on the writing of Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in 2010 when she wrote her critique of the use of mapping in contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa in an essay that was eventually reprinted in the catalogue accompanying Here and Elsewhere,1 to which Diana Nawi responded in 2015 through a sustained reflection on Bouchra Khalili’s use of mapping. While Wilson-Goldie cautioned that cartography may best be abandoned, Nawi watches Khalili’s subjects pick up their pens and cross the border lines that these maps once drew into existence. When I made my own visit to the New Museum during the Here and Elsewhere exhibition, it stuck me that The Mapping Journey Project was the only project to directly incise the very notion of bounded regions that still, for better or worse, underpinned the curatorial premise of the entire exhibition.

By focusing on the testimony of the travelers themselves, Khalili returns cartography to the movement-practice it always has been – based off of data collected on foot by thousands of cartographers, surveying, measuring, perceiving the land. Whereas the genre of physical geography calls for a fictional objectivity and omission of the subject, Khalili’s mappers explore a genre of place-representation that returns the subject to the center, honestly collapsing the mirage of scientific affect and reminding us that land is a moving, tactile experiences and borders are not “borders” but assemblages of daily routine, agreements, legalisms, pain, memory, beliefs, fear, and architecture.

The Mapping Journey Project uses a line to describe a journey that has already been completed by using the interface and the historical implications of the nation-based map. But the line between the map and the territory can also reach the other way around – something any one of the millions of people who use google maps every day can attest to. I feel comfortable guessing that the habit of google-mapping locations prior to setting out on one’s way has integrated mapping, and the lines of the journey, into daily life more now than ever before in history. My daily routine quite often consists of following the blue lines set out for me by the map I searched before I left my flat – how could this have been as essential in the days of paper maps? I could just as well arrive to the U-Bahn station and check the map there, or seek directions from my appointment. In any case, it seems that technology has placed the mundane utility and efficiency of mapping in the hands and routines of more people, more times per day, than ever before. It is in this highly integrated context that the relationship between the map and the territory can be further complicated by artists looking to play with the density of associations.

In 2006 the graffiti artist Momo created what is likely the largest work of street art in the world when he rode through lower manhattan dripping one continuous line of paint from punctured five-gallon paint buckets. By bike, he traveled from the Hudson River to the East River following a line he drew on a map using the Manhattan grid to spell his tag. It didn’t take New Yorkers too long to notice; I attended a high school in Manhattan at the time, and remember how often I would be walking down the street when a friend would point to the orange line, explaining that it could be followed for miles. The New York Times picked up the story in 2010, and spoke to the artist by telephone: “I wanted to make a trail that people could follow,” Momo said in Colin Moynihan’s article, “And I realized that I could write something if I planned it out with the street grid.”2

Momo’s work can be followed as a trail, like he intended, but it can only be read by recourse to the map. The work cannot be seen all at once except through the trace that it makes in reference to the map – only then can the viewer understand the haphazard cursive that spells the artists signature. While following the innocuous, thin line through the streets, the viewer is given to the rhythm of the city, allowing the line to take them from river to river across the island and surely exposing them to the myriad experiences that any walk through Manhattan can produce. The work is no more visible in person than it is on the map, while perhaps only a synthesis of the both can constitute a complete viewing. A tag, a painting, and even a work of land art, the Manhattan Tag is a profoundly contemporary composition that lives naturally in the enmeshed, inextricable field of connections between the map and the territory, disturbing the cognitive distinctions that let us believe these two things are separate after all.

The title of this essay is partially lifted from the work of architect, writer, podcaster and Funambulist editor Léopold Lambert, who uses the phrase the thickness of the line as a field of consideration beginning with the use of the line in architecture. Lambert’s website is here.

Image courtesy: New Museum; Bouchra Khalili and Galerie Campagne Première, Berlin.

1 Wilson-Goldie, Kaelen. 'Off the Map: Contemporary Art in the Middle East,' in 
The Future of Tradition – The Tradition of Future, eds. Chris Dercon, León Krempel, 
and Avinoam Shalem (Munich: Prestel Publishing, 2010), pp. 60-67. Print
2 Moynihan, Colin. “Momo’s Painted Downtown Line.” The New York Times. September 17, 2010, 
sec. Art & Design. Print
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