Experimental Geography as Art

By Shaer, Matthew | The Christian Science Monitor, May 5, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Experimental Geography as Art


Shaer, Matthew, The Christian Science Monitor


Since February, this strange caravan has been wending its way across the continental United States: a 39-foot RV; the gnarled carcass of a car destroyed two years ago in a suicide bombing in downtown Baghdad; and a rotating cast of artists, soldiers, and journalists, including an Iraqi national named Esam Pasha, and Jonathan Harvey, an American who fought in the Iraq war. "It Is What It Is" was created by British artist Jeremy Deller to stimulate conversation about the conflict overseas. In cities from Santa Fe to Cincinnati, the participants disembark and invite ordinary Americans to speak their mind on issues political and personal. The car - ravaged and rusted - serves as a centerpiece: a steel-cast stand-in for the 38 Iraqis killed in the 2007 attack. But for Nato Thompson, who is helping to curate the show on behalf of New York's New Museum and the nonprofit group Creative Time, the exhibition is more than a simple forum. It is also an integral addition to an emergent art form known as "experimental geography," which mashes the academic rigor of traditional geography with politics and the principles of modern multimedia and performance art. "I like to think of us as creating a kind of space for dialogue, and for analysis, and for interaction," the high-spirited Mr. Thompson said in a phone interview from Houston, where Mr. Deller and the other participants were slated to give a talk at the Glassell School of Art. "We're tracking our progress on a map on a website, for instance [conversationsaboutiraq.org], and updating video and blog posts, and inviting people to think not just about the physical landscape, but our cultural landscape, too." Over the past few months, innovative projects such as "It Is What It Is" have gained a good deal of ballast, both with art world vets and a fresh wave of local activists and artists. Experimental geography was the topic of a sold-out discussion at the New Museum here, and the theme of a traveling show presented by Independent Curators International, a New York-based arts organization. And "Experimental Geography" is the title of a popular accompanying catalog, copublished by iCI and Brooklyn's Melville House and edited by Thompson. "The fact that it's been sort of a hybrid medium, that it's incorporated cartography, and art, and political activism, and geography - well, that's very exciting," says Susan Hapgood, the director of exhibitions at iCI. "There has been an overwhelming amount of interest in the show. The phone has not stopped ringing." (From June 28 to Sept. 20, "Experimental Geography" will be at The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, in New Mexico.) Coined by the geographer and artist Trevor Paglen, the term "experimental geography" has been interpreted in myriad ways, and all of its adherents have a slightly different take on its meaning. It can incorporate aspects of cartography, of printmaking, of activism, and even of theater. "When I first started doing this stuff, I aimed it mostly at geographers and academics," Mr. Paglen says. "This new audience is not originally what I had in mind, and as a result, I don't have an Oprah's-couch answer to [what experimental geography] is. It's an abstract idea, and necessarily so - it has to operate at a certain level of abstraction." To look at it another way, experimental geography is a broad and varied science. Experimental geography was an important part of a recent performance of "Waiting for Godot," in the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward, in New Orleans; it was also one of the central principles of Paglen's recent book, "Blank Spots on a Map," which explored the landscape and iconography of America's secret military prisons and airstrips.

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