At its most basic, geography is an analogous statement about the world describing a given set of data points. It is a representative abstraction, and as with painting or drawing its handlers are constantly rethinking how to make relationships between phenomena visible across space. Today, influenced by Marxist and radical geographies dealing with the socio-economic production of space (David Harvey’s writings, the spatial theories of De Certeau, and the activist interventions of the Situationists, to name a few) artists have taken up geography with a grain of social salt, plying the discipline as a means of representing relationships that might, in other contexts, merely take the label “terra incognita.” While some of these practices read initially as social or environmental advocacy (see: the images of nuclear-waste sites available on the web-pages of the Center for Land Use Interpretation), the methodological idiosyncrasies and open-ended nature of the “results” they propose keep them from qualifying as a field of discipline, while their capacity to visually represent the previously unknown groups them as art.
This winter, “Nous ne notons pas les fleurs, dit le géographe” a group exhibition curated by Virginie Bobin and Julia Kläringat Bétonsalon in Paris, presents an overview of said practices, which, it should be noted, are not uncommon. Trevor Paglen’s Code Names (2005–7), an alphabetized list of phrases from classified military programs active between 2001 and 2007, faces the entrance. A professor of geography, Paglen is concerned with locating hidden government activity and outing it in elegant arrangements. Stretching one story high and applied to the gallery’s white wall in a simple serif font, Code Names labels government projects that sound like science-fiction (i.e.: “Constant Phoenix”) and reveal the imaginative, futuristic, mystical and meaningless trappings of the ostensibly neuter bureaucratic identification.
Zurich-based Ursula Biemann takes a narrative approach when researching human geography in the trans-Saharan borderlands of Niger, Morocco and Mauritania. The Sahara Chronicle (2006–7), her compelling series of videos at Bétonsalon, show what it is like “on the ground” of this key route to Western Europe. Interviews with the professional guides who charge for safe passage show the more quotidian and entrepreneurial aspects of orchestrating an underground railroad, providing details on the process we call “border movement” that the bird’s eye view of traditional geographies would miss entirely.
While these sorts of practices are what led Martha Rosler to announce that art, “continues to have a mapping and even critical function in regard to geopolitical realities.” Other works in the exhibition take a more esoteric look at geography and how it can also fail us when it comes to finding ourselves in space. On a simple wooden bench, one can sit and listen, through headphones, to a 27-minute audio work by Tacita Dean, doing exactly what the title of the piece specifies: Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty (1997). As the landmark is sometimes submerged, she leaves unsure if she has seen it, and the piece is, as one would imagine, a recording of Dean trying; gently prodding her driver friend, rustling with directions, and encountering dead-ends. Though Dean ultimately fails at her objective, her recording is a monument to losing one’s way.
The poetic failed explorer, who by any other standards has “nothing” of value to show for herself on return, is an apt metaphor for artist Ellie GA, who, in a move reminiscent of Pierre Huyghe’s trip to Antarctica (A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005) joined a team of arctic explorers for six months on the ship Tara Democles in the Arctic Ocean. There, she and her fellow explorers lived in a landscape of ice constantly evolving as floes melted and reformed. Their aluminum boat tethered deep in Arctic ice-pack, Ga had little by way of marking her surrounds. In a book published to document the expedition, Ga writes, “At the beginning North was here. But it keeps changing.” Her half-dozen Drift Drawings (2006–7), (slight marker gestures on thin sheets of white paper ) are the imperfect maps of the boat’s movement, demonstrative of a certain negative capability, Keats’ term for the creative embrace of the unknown.
The exhibition takes its title from a line in Antoine St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince (1943), which merits explaining here. “Nous Ne Notons Pas Les Fleurs” is what the anonymous geographer says when the eponymous Prince comes to him in search of a flower. In a parable of the differences between romanticism and the rational-scientific tradition, the geographer responds gruffly: “We don’t record flowers.” As this exhibit attests, recording flowers today might not be so preposterous a project. In fact, it’s already been done, since, with the advent of Google Earth, we have finally created the 1:1 scale map of the world that Jorge Luis Borges imagined in the Exactitude in Science Nonetheless artists, working as always through geography, continue to propose to us that some “unknown knowns” must certainly remain.