Regardless of its origin, this attenuation of geography poses real problems for any of the wide range of practices that mean to activate its still-considerable potential. Chief among these problems is a diminished analytical power, evident in the widespread reduction of geography to maps or other predominantly visual and static forms of display. Another is the tendency to quietly back away from the issues earlier raised by Harvey and Jameson, many of which–like uneven development, totality, or class–bear a Marxian provenance and still inhabit an unapologetically socialist horizon. Absent any link to political economy, geographies risk lapsing into idealism, becoming the mere negative image of the overly positivistic, so-called “hard” social sciences. A final concern regards the distinction between practices that hybridize techniques, preserving some sense of their respective differences, and those that merely conflate them into a sort of mishmash that is content to stylize information without interrogating it. One needn’t mourn a lost specificity–whether that of a medium or of a discipline–to see this as a problem.
When these issues go unminded, it is all too easy to casually aestheticize and thus obfuscate the obvious, as in the case of The Road Map (2003), a project undertaken by the collective Multiplicity. Charting the results of several trips through the West Bank, The Road Map purported to inform viewers that it takes longer for Palestinians than Israelis to travel through the occupied territories. But who could really be surprised or moved by this? Certainly not any Israeli or Palestinian, or in fact anyone with rudimentary knowledge of this territorial conflict.8 Against this somewhat simple-minded earnestness, one wishes for more work like Francis Alyes’s The Green Line (2005), in which Alyes retraced a portion of the 1948 Israeli-Palestinian border by walking through divided Jerusalem with a leaking can of green paint. There, an action that might first have seemed only to be the literal transcription of map onto territory ultimately assumed much more ambiguous and generative implications when realized.
Such concerns regarding the efficacy and specificity of emergent geographical practices hardly cancel out their potential; if anything, they signal the high stakes in play. They strongly suggest the need for self-critical vigilance, especially as this rapidly evolving territory remains itself largely uncharted. One can thus glean something like an object lesson from the recent exhibition Geography of Transterritories, curated by Hou Hanru at the Walter and McBean Galleries of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). With only five artists participating, the proportions of the show were modest compared to some of Hou’s other recent projects, such as the 2009 Lyon Biennale, or the three-part World Factory, which ran at SFAI in 2007. However, the artists’ diverse working methods resulted in an expansive conception of the operations that might comprise aesthetico-geographical activity, ranging from conducting unscripted interviews to appropriating surveillance footage, inventing typefaces, and executing wall drawings in ash.
Most of the work on display either hybridized or reinflected recognizable forms. For example, Michael Arcega’s Concealarium (2008) subjected the logic of Carl Andre’s Equivalent series to a wry, neo-Conceptual spin by turning a stack of lumber into a muted comment on immigration politics. Whereas video has basically become the default format for internationally circulating critical art, video works by Ursula Biemann (Sahara Chronicle, 2006-009) and Carlos Motta (The Good Life, 2005-08) adopted unconventional modes of display and address, as if to counter the habituated modes of spectatorship that can neutralize difficult content. Giventhat both pieces depended considerably on interview footage–Biemann’s with North African migrants and Motta’s with residents of Latin American cities–both artists went to lengths to get and keep viewers’ attention, with Motta even building a sort of amphitheater for this purpose. Taken together, the hybridity, interdisciplinarity, and adaptability of the approaches included in the show suggested a shared ambition to trace the contours of spaces that would otherwise be unrecognizable.
Chief among these is the category designated by Hou as the “transterritory,” a site in which traditional notions of nation and territory have been superseded due to the radical transformation of communication, migration, production, and experience. For Hou, the refugee camp exemplifies the logic of the transterritory, with its inhabitants subjected to “constant displacement and transit” as a result of conflicts that fail to recognize established borders. Without minimizing these very real conditions of privation, Hou nevertheless argued that the “transterritorial imagination” could give rise to potentially utopic effects, even as he left these largely unspecified.9