In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
The map has long been a contested site. Jorge Luis Borges' 1946 story On Exactitude in Science, composed masterfully of a sole paragraph written as a literary forgery, sounds cautionary: despite its alleged precision, the map is doomed to finish as a tattered, haunted plane. It is fundamentally an abstraction. Trusting either cartographic imagery or the language of 'representational' mapping is illusory, as the relationship of the tool to its subject is one of flux, instability, and layered subjectivity. Any canny observer of images, dutifully informed by postmodern tendencies to distrust simulation and manipulation, clearly lost faith in representational veracity long ago. Yet the map sneaks past these filters, doggedly presenting itself as a terra firma kind of reality, sealing the deal on the promise of certainty and reliability that Borges so deftly critiqued.
Map ≠ Territory, subtly complicating linguist Alfred Korybski's incisive phrase with a mathematical sign, unites the work of six artists who plumb the complex question of mapping today—a time of ongoing post-colonial fallout, elusive resources, invasive tech, and intensifying surveillance. Rather than literally mapping, these artists reflect on the various (and sometimes urgent) strands of inquiry the fraught map/territory relation continues to encompass.
The simple act of reading a map is problematised in Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck's Ian Gulf (2018), which, like many of the artist's works, is sharp witted yet deeply layered. By obliterating the first four letters of the words 'Persian' and 'Arabian' on side-by-side Gulf maps by means of a cardamom pod and pink peppercorns, the artist conjures, in one swift gesture, ancient trade routes, the march of empire, ongoing geographic name squabbles, and a host of political entanglements that smoulder below the surface of the gently pastel-colored documents—from 1950s Soviet military ambitions to Western oil extraction strategies. The plaything of shifting geopolitical scheming, the territory, like the signs used to demarcate it, can never be truly 'read.'
Trusted documentary methods, in the hands of Rossella Biscotti, convey alternative truths. Conflating two documentary 'models'—the blueprint and the oceanographic map—Biscotti's The Journey (2016) confounds scientific exactitude by alluding to the politics of invisibility at work in any attempt to render the visible. The artist dropped a 20-ton marble block awarded to her by the iconic Michelangelo quarry in Carrara, Italy into the charged waters between Italy, Malta, Libya, and Tunisia. Pinpointing the marble chunk's location, Biscotti fathoms military relics, commercial and migrant routes from the seabed up, interrogating how exploration and exploitation overlap.
Invisibility, the environment, and the scramble for resources coalesce in Balteo-Yazbeck's Constellation A, from the Fossil Carbon Cycle series (2006-2020). Five wooden lumps splayed across the wall are made from ancient roots seeped in the fossil-fuel-generated carbon they have imbibed throughout their long lifecycle. The wall-bound configuration reproduces exploration maps indicating underground fuel deposits, the tar-painted roots' convex curves mimicking the representational system of topographic maps.
Cian Dayrit engages in a practice of counter-mapping: he subverts the language of the map while signposting potentially emancipatory means of reinterpreting space. His choice of medium—embroidery and feathers on textile—destabilises the cartographic canon, implying narratives that easily ravel and unravel. Cartographic might is undermined by flourishes of indigenous symbols, while the titles' resolute questioning (Which Border Do You Subscribe To or Both Poles Serve You?) claim some agency over the hegemonic powers whose slicing up of the world have led to the dispossession and displacement at the heart of Dayrit's concerns.
Consequences of imperial power (re)surface in Bady Dalloul's floor-mounted video Discussion Between Gentlemen (2016). Referencing the territorial scoring of the Levant by the French and British, Dalloul's comic/ironic work amplifies the precarious nature of map-making, foregrounding the palimpsest-like layers of erasure and re-writing. Echoing Borges, the work concludes that the map is futile, incapable of seizing the shifting will of its masters, ultimately becoming a relic. Resembling an operation room information panel (or a crime investigation suspect board), On the Happy Occasion (2015) takes a 1920s vintage map as a springboard to plot seemingly ordinary moments in the nascent history of a handful of imaginary countries that mushroom into markedly significant events. In much the same way Discussion Between Gentlemen exhausts the re-writing of history to the point of futility, On the Happy Occasion reframes the endeavor under the sign of randomness.
The surveillance state is power at its most insidious, its mapping technologies largely invisible, its panoptic might forever creating docile bodies. In his video Did You See Me This Time With Your Own Eyes? (2018) Shadi Habib Allah springboards off an experiment with a DIY 2G phone network—devices favoured by nomadic Bedouins in the Sinai infamous for smuggling to escape Egyptian government tracking—to interrogate mapping that atomizes the conventions of the cartographic. Intercepted sound, encrypted messages, pervasive networks, decoding devices: the map enmeshes and strangles out its 'subjects.'
Compelled by questions of illusion and deception, Christine Rebet freely maps a monk's metamorphic journey from his mountain top home to the sea in the hand-drawn animated film Breathe In Breathe Out (2019) and accompanying ink-on-paper drawings. The path meanders through a succession of physical metamorphoses, but also marks a journey of the mind, peppered by glimpses of elusive corners of a fragile living world. Everything, the works suggest, is transitive.
Map ≠ Territory revels in a sense of unmappability, in this amplified collapse of trust in the map, so deeply wound up in structure of domination and control. Nothing is ever as it seems, these artists attest. And while the map may be futile as a representation of perpetually shifting territories, the deeper concern is that reality itself is unknowable. In the end, each map leads to other maps in a recursive regression. Are we fated only to ever have untrustworthy representations?