“The Shapes I Remember from Maps”: Tracking the New Geographies

Andrew Stefan Weiner

1How do maps age? Perhaps they transform as they decay, changing from tools into documents of historical relations, artifacts of visual design, or simply obsolescent curiosities. But such a view misses the fact that a map is always a record of mapping: the process by which foreign phenomena are translated onto familiar grids of intelligibility. Like so many other representations, maps appear to be windows, but invariably alter the objects they claim to transparently depict. The familiarity of the map can thus conceal the traces of formative effects that are sedimented within it, growing less and less recoverable with time.

So if a map’s own contingency and artifactuality are inscribed upon it in a sort of disappearing ink, how might this dynamic become manifest in other forms of spatial knowledge? And in what ways might geography itself as a field be subject to similar forces of constitutive mediation, sedimentation, and drift? These questions assume added pertinence in light of the recent proliferation of geographical forms, techniques, and objectives in contemporary visual art, practices that now appear with a frequency that would have seemed surprising even ten years ago. Tracking this surge in production, a steadily increasing number of exhibitions, publications, and educational programs are dedicated to these “new geographies.”2

Société Réaliste, "Ministère de l’Architecture: Culture States, Survey of Former Independent States of 20th Century Europe," 2008. Digital print, 78 3/4 x 47 1/4 in. Courtesy of Société Réaliste.

Société Réaliste, Ministère de l’Architecture: Culture States, Survey of Former Independent States of 20th Century Europe, 2008. Digital print, 78 3/4 x 47 1/4 in. Courtesy of Société Réaliste.

Like any emergent field, this one is internally heterogeneous, contested, and in flux, and it would be premature, and possibly even counter-productive, to restrictively define it. Nevertheless, one can roughly sketch certain areas of the field by referencing some of its more frequently discussed members. One such constellation might include Christian Philipp Mueller, Emily Jacir, Trevor Paglen, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and the collaborations of Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri. If this group is primarily oriented towards different forms of critical art practice, another, more market-friendly list might comprise names such as Julie Mehretu and Franz Ackermann.

Clearly, how the present horizons of geographical experimentation are defined is significant, insofar as these decisions will inevitably help dictate its future evolution. But a similar urgency should attend efforts to construct a genealogy of the recent “geographic turn.” How, when, and under what preconditions did this shift occur, and what is at stake in its now being largely taken for granted? Could the extreme capaciousness of geography–a category that sometimes seems to include nearly any engagement with space, however broadly defined–conceal substantive differences between practices? And how can critical histories map intertwined transformations in knowledge and cultural production without losing sight of their relation to political economy?

A response to these questions might first consider the decentralized uptake of geographic practices across the postwar neo-avant-gardes in North America and Western Europe. Though the history of this turn remains largely unwritten, many of its crucial features are familiar. One selective list might include Jasper Johns’s refigurations of the United States map; the psychogeographical experiments of the Situationist International; Wolf Vostell’s bus tours of war-damaged European cities; the walks of Stanley Brouwn and Richard Long; On Kawara’s travel postcards; and the proto-photoconceptualism of Ed Ruscha, Robert Smithson, and Dan Graham. To the extent that these geographic impulses within the neoavant- gardes have been registered within art history, they have largely figured as a rejection of prevailing artistic tendencies. For example, Johns’s use of the map is typically regarded as a device to counter High Modernist taboos against explicit content and literal signification; while the neutral automatism of mapping is often thought to have been a means by which Brouwn negated the expressive individualism of painterly mark-making.

While these interpretations have value, they also seem suspiciously convenient, as tidy successions better suited to a textbook than to our actual experience of these works as maps in a peculiar state of decay. Works like Guy Debord’s The Naked City (1957) meant to forcibly derange the city map from its status as a document of hierarchical and centralized urban planning, and refunctionalize it as an agent of drift, a tool paradoxically meant to confound instrumental logic by enabling contingent encounters. This history hasn’t been wholly forgotten. However, despite the trenchant anti-aestheticism they initially manifested, Debord’s maps, now a half-century old, have assumed an abstract, quasi-organic quality. Their gridded fragments have been grafted into what has become an inscrutable network of relays and impulses. They are captivating, reading as static forms that exist just at the threshold of becoming. With their mazes of arrows reproducing the unpredictable self-transformation of thought, they seem to be speaking back to Paul Klee, emerging from a similar terrain of child-savant intensity.3

In such cases it seems that the historical precedents to the new geographies exhibit an obdurate strangeness that current experimental and critical production most often lacks. Whether we think of Debord’s delirious collages, Brouwn’s gnomic transcriptions, or Ruscha’s quasi-autistic catalogs, earlier cartographic experiments tend to retain a certain resistance to interpretation. From a contemporary perspective they appear to us as ciphers or glyphic forms, as decontextualized ruins emptied of their content. No doubt this is partly due to profound structural changes in the function of the map, such that increasing numbers of people worldwide now carry Global Positioning Software (GPS)-enabled phones that give them access to perpetually updated mapping applications, all the while making their own location knowable. From this perspective, it almost seems anachronistic to think of maps as decaying, rather than as being constantly upgraded.

Another possible reason for the apparent distance separating current geographical work from its neo-avantgarde predecessors is that these older forms can be perceived only from the other side of a comprehensive epistemological reorientation. This turn has thoroughly naturalized geographical practices while enabling their increasing sophistication, making earlier experiments seem somehow primitive. Without overly simplifying a complex transformation, it bears noting that the widespread uptake of geography within art has occurred more or less contemporaneously with the ongoing crisis of geography as an academic discipline. For instance, Johns’s American flags were produced shortly after the dissolution of Harvard’s geography department, which signaled a key step in the discipline’s shift away from its original affinities with imperial and colonial ambitions.4

In a series of little-known developments since then, geographical modes of inquiry have not been disbanded so much as dispersed and reorganized into new forms of transdisciplinarity. The most notable exemplars of this shift have been David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, who share much of the responsibility for initiating the “spatial turn” within the humanities and critical theory beginning in the 1980s. Both Harvey and Jameson were and remain committed Marxists, and their analyses have sought to track what were then incipient and are now hegemonic movements of globalization and neoliberalization. It is no surprise that their arguments have influenced numerous radical attempts to hybridize geopolitical analyses with practices developed out of or between any number of academic disciplines, artistic forms, and political practices. One important example of this convergence is Goldsmiths College’s Centre for Research Architecture. Eyal Weizman founded the center in order to train architects in analyzing and managing the political implications of spatial forms, which is a concern that emerges from Weizman’s own work on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.5 Another is Zones of Conflict, a series of research workshops convened in 2008-09 by T.J. Demos, which brought artists, curators, critics, and theorists together to debate topics including “Transnational Communities” and “Uneven Geographies.”6

But if geography has ceased being a classical discipline and become something more like a distributed tendency, it now manifests the problems of an expanded field. On the one hand, its plasticity has allowed it to engage disparate questions and model new responses.7 On the other, its broadening has inevitably led to a loss of specificity, precision, and possible impact. The more practices that count as geography–and how many can’t make at least some claim to deal with the production of space?–the less they potentially have to say to each other or to us, whoever we are. This dilution could stem from the relative absence of an established mainstream against which to define alternatives. It might also owe something to its reliance on the concept of space, which, like “text” or “art,” is so overdetermined as to harbor incommensurable meanings.


  1. This quote is drawn from the song “The Big Country,” written by David Byrne and recorded by Talking Heads on their 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food.
  2. A selective bibliography might include the following: Experimental Geography, ed. Nato Thompson (New York: Independent Curators International, 2008); Else/ Where: Mapping–New Cartographies of Networks and Territories, Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Design Institute, 2006); “The New Geography: A Roundtable,” with Jeffrey Kastner, Nato Thompson, Tom McCarthy, and Eyal Weizman, Bookforum 16.1 (April/May 2009); An Atlas of Radical Cartography, Alexis Bhagat and Lize Mogel, eds. (Los Angeles: Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, 2008); Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2000); and the journal New Geographies, available online at http://www.gsd. harvard.edu/academic/upd/ agakhan/newgeographies.
  3. If such responses are slightly embarrassing to voice, perhaps this is because the ghost of the later D ebord posthumously polices the history of the Situationist I nternational (SI), threatening to excommunicate those who fail to heed revolutionary orthodoxies that are now half a century old. Against all probability and its own intentions, the SI now stands as proof that even the most radical anti-institutional practices of the 1960s are susceptible to institutionalization, whether in the gallery or the seminar room. T his shouldn’t be cause for either cynicism or L eft melancholy, but rather an opportunity to mobilize different resources, critical capacities, and modes of attentiveness. An engagement with the aesthetics of psychogeography might well show that Debord’s reception should disrespect the strict oppositions imposed by his own renunciation of art, instead tracing the circuits that maintained aesthetics and politics as distinct yet irreducibly coimplicated fields, regardless of any attempt to sublate them.
  4. For detailed discussion of the relation between academic and “experimental” geographies, see Trevor Paglen, “Experimental Geographies: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space,” in Thompson, Experimental Geography.
  5. Information regarding the program may be found at http://www.gold.ac.uk/ architecture. A recent example of Weizman’s work is Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (New York: Verso, 2007).
  6. Further description of the project may be found at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ zones_of_conflict.
  7. Paglen argues that this quality, derided by Harvard administrators in the 1950s as a “hopeless amorphousness,” is in fact geography’s greatest strength; Paglen, 29.
Further Reading