Summer 2011

– Summer 2011


Contextual Essays


Events, Works, Exhibitions


Melissa Gronlund

What do we mean when we say ‘mapping a territory’? It is a common way to speak about exhibitions, particularly to underline that a study of a given field is going to be objective in aim and somehow scientific in method: not a best-of, but a faithful representation of the different trends and formats coexisting and perhaps intersecting in a locally defined area of art practice. ‘Von hier aus’, for example, curated by Kasper König in 1984, looked at the work produced in Germany in the 1980s, while Paul Schimmel’s ‘Helter Skelter’ (1992) examined art in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and ‘Nought to Sixty’ (2008), curated by Mark Sladen and Richard Birkett, looked at work made by sixty artists in the British Isles in the late 2000s. For the organisation of these exhibitions, mapping provides a framework by which disparate trends can become linked, the show emerging as a plan — or to borrow a phrase from Dexter Sinister, a collective featured in this issue, it puts the work ‘in plan view’ — in which tendencies can be seen more clearly. The methodology and its implications of objectivity aren’t exclusive to the art world. Utilising mapping over the past thirty years has allowed historians to access a wider swathe of the past, looking at the social life of ‘ordinary’ men and women — rather than the lives of those in the political or cultural elites, whose activities and opinions had been the focus until then.1 By analysing where a populace lived, and where essentials like schools and grocery stores, bookstores, luxury purveyors or cultural venues were located, historians can gain a sense of the life of a time that might not have been recorded or otherwise passed down.

This issue of Afterall addresses these questions through the work of artists with different relations to the act of mapping, the land and locality. Andrea Zittel’s interest in California’s Joshua Tree National Park and its surroundings, which she has used as the staging ground for her collaborative projects, sustains a focus not just on the land, but on the interaction between the park and its inhabitants: do humans react differently within different vistas? Jef Geys’s highly localised practice, centred in his hometown of Balen, Belgium, suggests a similar escape from the institution of art: if implicit in participatory art’s anti-elitism and its use of ‘everyone’ rather than ‘the anointed few’ is a form of institutional critique, then Geys’s attempts to open up artistic practice by delineating it through spatial territory (rather than through social code or norm) is indeed a reformation of the whole art system. The idea of mapping as revelatory — implicit also in the exhibitions cited above — is germane to Suzanne Lacy’s Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (1995), a seminal survey of public and participatory artwork (re-assessed here by Stephanie Smith), which sought to create the field as much as document it.

In putting together this issue, we also thought of other ways to look at ‘mapping’, and specifically wondered if one can ‘map’ dissemination in any meaningful sense. Taken literally, the parallels between the two concepts seem to suggest so: mapping provides a cartographic history of the tributaries that information — printed, videotaped or spoken — might take. But also implicit in the word ‘dissemination’ is the sense of chains-of-command being overwhelmed — to disseminate something, ideally, is to pass it beyond a chain of personal acquaintances or to move it beyond what can be adequately charted.

Dissemination’s integral status to the contemporary conception of art was explored by artists as different as Robert Barry and Ray Johnson, who at times let this notion provide the form of their work. For Johnson in particular, as in the examples considered in the following pages, dissemination is concerned with distribution as a particular form of social relation, particularly among people who don’t know one another. It is a social and often political matter, not a merely formal one. Similarly, as Stéphanie Jeanjean suggests in her text on the feminist collectives that formed in France to work with the new video technology in the 1970s, the politics of distribution was as important as the politics of image-taking (and was ultimately more difficult to resolve).

Texts on Dexter Sinister in this issue look at their subsumption of editing, design and publication under one heading, and at the different forms of public engagement that their projects entail. In his discussion of their work, Saul Anton underlines a temporal rather than spatial dimension to their practice: he argues that they challenge criticality, of which the published journal is the primary carrier, as the representative of an ever-unfolding ‘now’ — a ‘now’ that’s noticeably Greenbergian, despite Clement Greenberg’s insistence on the purity of media and the separation of word and image. Thinking through Dexter Sinister’s work for this issue — which includes an iteration of a text contributed by them — the wormholes their work follows and the transubstantiations it undergoes seem poised to occlude as much as make manifest; they are interested in what happens when some things are kept invisible.

Such gaps in communication and representation are productively marshalled by other works considered in the following pages. And they are a good foil to the magic promised by mapping’s shift from the individual to the statistical — the pseudo-revelation touted by zooming outwards. As has been said, the map is not the territory.

  1. See, for example, Matthew Green, 'Place and Space: Theories of Topographical Narratives', Afterall Online, 20 September 2009, available here