Expect the World
Expect the world. But morning delivery is one thing. Trying to drink a cup of coffee over images of cataclysmic terror is another. Clearly, whatever expectations were implicit in the New York Times’ advertising slogan have been superseded by recent world events. According to most headlines, it seems the world is all too rapidly coming together only to fall apart. But the world isn’t simply in the newspapers you read. It is in the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the movies you see, and more than likely, the company you keep. Everything is everywhere. And by the same token, everywhere is in everything. Distant geographic points are not only linked via satellite transmission, they are also linked materially and socially through the flow of labor, commodities, refugees and tourists. Under these circumstances, allegories of globalization can come from almost anywhere. This makes for a very restless geographical and geopolitical imagination. Between journalistic reportage, a nostalgia for the exotic, a wanderlust baited by travel ads, and the circular discourse of authenticity, artists have had to perform complex negotiations when trying to represent place. Detourism features the work of fifteen artists who call attention to how place is mediated through travel, translation, memory, material culture and photographic conventions. Almost all of the work in Detourism deals with specific places Panama, Cambodia/Vietnam, Bali, Afghanistan, Kuala Lumpur, South Africa, Cuba, Italy, China, and Senegal. And with varying degrees of directness, the artists provide insight into the socio-political and cultural affairs of these locales. But more important, the work in Detourism is linked by the simple question, how is it possible to understand there from here particularly when, as Gertrude Stein put it, there is no there there.
Detourism opens with a display of over a dozen Afghani war carpets that range in style and size. The carpets were produced during Afghanistan’s decade long civil war which began after the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979. War was part of Afghani life to the extent that contemporary weaponry became a standard design motif. Although many of the rug dealers refer to these carpets as novelties, their variety and commercial availability suggests more of a genre. Unfortunately war carpets illustrate globalization in all the wrong ways as a traditional form meets the worst of modern content. In this instance, the juxtaposition of a harsh contemporary reality with a time honored craft is testimonial to what Ralph Ellison called the boomerang of history, one which no doubt has come back to haunt. The following account is provided by Chicagoan Eric L.Miller many of whose rugs are on display:
In 1989, during a visit to Peshawar, an ancient city on Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, my wife and I met local carpet dealers through a friend working for a relief agency. The war had raged on for 10 years at this point. A large concentration of the 3 million Afghan refugees were housed in tents outside Peshawar. You could see the profound impact the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had on this unhappy population. Despite the misery, carpet- making was a way to preserve their culture and traditions, as well as generate much-needed income. Relief agencies, along with the government of Pakistan, established a short-lived pilot program to train refugee children in carpet-making. The rugs are called narche jangi or war rug, and were woven by mainly Uzbek and Turkoman children as qualifying tests of their weaving skills. The results vary widely, and many carpet experts look down on these rugs because of the crude design and the cheaper materials (note: wool was in short supply). By the time we arrived, the carpet-making enterprise was winding down. The Pakistani rug dealer scoured the refugee camps to come up with war rugs for us to buy. What attracted me to these rugs was that they came from the children’s direct experience with war. Along with the vibrant depiction’s of kalashnikov rifles, tanks, helicopters, land mines and bombs is an occasional flower pot and tea service thrown in for added decoration.
The war rugs are part decorative artform and part historical artifact. As documents they belong to the realm of material cultural. Material culture refers to collectible artifacts that fall outside the realm of fine art. It also encompasses the mundane memorabilia (postcards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, key chains) a place chooses to represent or celebrate itself. This includes the postage stamp. Siemon Allen’s stamp collection is a veritable history of South Africa from the country’s colonial origins to the post-apartheid era. In Allen’s words, the stamp is a kind of public relations gesture a highly self-conscious attempt to express through a single image some aspect of national identity. Flora, fauna, framers of the constitution. Athletes, armed forces, architects of apartheid. Given South Africa’s history, there is as much being repressed as there is revealed, proof that the production of a national consciousness is only complete when joined by its unconsciousness no matter how historically latent its manifestations. This is true not only of South Africa’s founding myths or the rise of Afrikaaner political consciousness, but also its most recent efforts aimed at a positive branding of the new (and improved) South Africa. Designed by the bureau tourism to counter South Africa’s image as it is tainted by Johannesberg’s crime rate and the country’s AIDs epidemic, these recent stamps feature young wrestlers starring in that country’s version of the hit television show Gladiator. Their various ethnic and racial backgrounds represent the ideals of any pluralistic society. In and of itself, this reads as symptomatic insofar as the fetishization of multiculturalism is in direct proportion to an inability to articulate, never mind address, pressing social disparities. But between their physiques and their silly nicknames Jackal, Wildebeest, Force etc. it is perhaps more frightening to consider these steroid inflated action-figures come-to-life as a parody or projection of either sexual attraction or strong statehood.
Corey McCorkle’s Untitled (Eleven Eleven Graft) (2001), is a grossly material allegory of globalization. It features over two dozen varieties of wood from around the world. The artist had them sliced to veneer thinness and adhered to 48” fluorescent light tubes. Depending on the density and natural darkness of the wood, when the tubes are installed, light is able to pass through the veneer. McCorkle installed his wood-laminated tubes in the bank of fluorescent fixtures located in the gallery’s vaulted ceiling. The alternating pattern reveals a breadth of grains, and a rich palette of luminous golden browns and chrome yellows reminiscent of say a bar shelf lined with a variety of single malt scotches. Indeed, Eleven Eleven Graft, functions on the principle of extraction, if not distillation, which is fundamental to the production of culture when it is defined as an adaptation of natural resources toward human ends. Wood is synonymous with this definition, which encompasses both process and product, neither of which is above politics. McCorkle characterizes the wood as an element of luxury applied to a strictly utilitarian object. But Eleven Eleven Graft is not so much a static combination of utility and luxury as it is a translation of utility into luxury. Culture is literally and figuratively a thin veneer that when applied to a utilitarian object results in the production of meaning and beauty. Albeit through the introduction of wood, the most sacred of sculptural materials, Eleven Eleven Graft continues an art historical trajectory of the readymade (from Duchamp to Dan Flavin) by further illustrating the translation of use value into sign value. But despite McCorkle’s economy of means and the work’s sublime, formalist beauty, the luxury evoked is wholly conspicuous. Deforestation and the bartering of natural resources as a way for non-industrialized nations to pay-off debt is a familiar story. The fluorescent lights further the narrative of economic alienation by subjecting the wood to a clinical analysis reminiscent of the bureaucratic and scientific procedures needed to literally extract wood’s chemical and aesthetic wealth.
The limits and subsequent blurring of objective and subjective means of grasping the geo-political terrain of some place else are most explicit in Rebecca Baron’s film ok bye bye (1998) and Johanna Bresnick’s Panama Canal Conduit (2000). In both works the relationship between home and abroad is mediated through longing as close social ties become routes to grasping the political issues of another country. Bresnick’s interest in the Panama Canal developed out of a desire to question and transcend any supposed cultural differences between herself and her Ecuadorian husband. Although direct references to her personal life have been excluded from this particular work, Panama Canal Conduit is a homely affair ultimately resistant to the tidy objectiveness its three components seek to muster. The sculptural components consist of a plaster model of the Panama Canal and a large block of yellowed foam containing the mold from which the plaster form was made. The profile of her crude plaster model is echoed in the peaks and valleys of the third component a computer printout of a polygraph test to which she subjected herself. Consisting of true false questions about Panama’s history, the polygraph test conjures the specter of police interrogation for which numerous South and Central American regimes remain notorious. The visual correspondence between the sculptural and the graphic component uncannily reflects the inseparability of the regions physical and political landscape.
Without ever leaving the confines of Southern California, Baron’s film ok bye bye serves as a profound reflection on the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The film is at once a faceted and layered critique of contemporary Southern California with its suburban sprawl and fast-growing Southeast Asian immigrant population as well as an historical overview of the last years of Nixon’s presidency, the rise of Pol Pot and the residual, not receding, trauma of the Vietnam War. ok bye bye, however, eludes a genre. Structured as a series of one-way correspondences to a personal acquaintance whose writing assignments have taken him to Vietnam, ok bye bye is an amalgam of historical research, personal reflection and critical meditations that could hardly be called a documentary. Its true subject is neither Vietnam nor Southern California but how two distant and seemingly distinct geographic points are linked through fact as well as fiction with the result being a flawed palimpsest we call history.
“We have no history, only a geography.” That line is delivered by the handsome Uncle Nazar, one of the characters in Alnoor Dewshi’s charming black and white film, Latifah and Himli’s Nomadic Uncle (1992). In tag-along fashion, the camera follows Latifah and Himli, a pair of playfully antagonistic cousins of Indian descent, through the polyglot streets of London. With matching hairstyles, and identically clad in combat boots, saris and bomber jackets, the two would almost be indistinguishable were it not for the contrast in character. The film is structured around a dialogue between Latifah, the pretentious theorist and Himli, forever the gruff and grouchy pragmatist. The conversation, always sparkling with wit, addresses their fate as members of a cosmopolitan, Subaltern Diaspora. At the center of the film is a lesson in cultural and geographic relativism delivered by Uncle Nazar over a game of three-way ping-pong. Formally, Dewshi’s work is a surrealist jewel, lending a much-needed lyricism to the strained politics of diversity. As if in response to the theoretical quagmire known as post-colonial studies, Himli delivers perhaps the film’s most memorable line: “Where I come from, we don’t worry about where we come from.”
The rhetoric of authenticity is just as central to the discourse of contemporary photography as it is to say anthropology. Detourism’s photo-based work challenges photographic conventions associated with tourism, journalism and photo-documentary. Miranda Lichtenstein’s photo series Cyberjaya (2001) documents a model community being constructed on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. Like the factory towns of the 19th century, Cyberjaya is built around a new class of internet workers. Housing ads boast of using the latest internet technologies to provide the owner full surveillance and temperature control capabilities. Whereas the genre of architectural photography celebrated the built environment, presenting it as an icon of optimism, Lichtenstein’s Cyberjaya is suffused with skepticism. She lifts New Objectivity’s prohibition on mood, often photographing her subject at twilight. If Lichtenstein’s construction sites are any indication, then the future, as it is being shaped in rapidly industrializing countries, is over determined. Her photos contain subtle and not-so subtle traces of a tropical agrarian past giving way to a cultivated amnesia. The unfinished monorail, non-descript lodge, and bland housing complex are an anonymous suburban sprawl forgettable well before completion.
Unlike Lichtenstein, Christopher Williams limits his travel photos to only a few. This in an effort to restore specificity to the image and ask how photographs signify singularly and in relation to an archive. In many respects Williams’ work functions as a supplement to its subject insofar as his subject has already been photographed. A picture is worth a thousand words and for Williams, another picture is worth yet another thousand as he extends established narratives embedded in conventions of modernist photography. His subjects are documented in accordance with established genres and conventions. The genres in Detourism are architectural photography, portraiture, and commercial photography. There is a building, a group of workers, a tree, a car and no relationship between the images, which are hung individually throughout the exhibition. Williams considers his subjects both specifically and as they relate to other photographs of the same subject. The image of the overturned Renault on the cover of the newsletter for example, corresponds to a standard commercial photograph of an automobile. As for the particulars, in this instance, Williams wanted to construct a memorial to the revolutionary aspirations of May 1968 when French students and workers went on strike and shut down the city of Paris. As for the specificity of the subject, much of the activity centered around the Renault factory. In 1971, a few years before this model Renault, a worker was killed by a factory guard. This event unofficially marked the end of an era as the factory workers expressed disillusionment with Marxist notions of the proletariat being the political agents of change. Although Williams’ photograph conjures associations of angry mobs in protestation, overturning cars perhaps using them as barricades, revolution, as expressed here, is a purely symbolic ideal in itself. In every sense, it goes nowhere. The car is neither fully overturned nor smashed but on its side and conspicuously intact, as if the revolutionary moment were cryogenically frozen simply as an idea.
In proximity to Williams’ portrait of Senegalese printers is another diptych by Toronto-based photographer Edward Burtynsky. Like the Williams’ photograph, Burtynsky’s images can be considered a portrait of laborers in their working context. The context in this case is shipbreaking as it occurs in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which is located in the Bay of Bengal, site of the world’s most notorious monsoons. When monsoon season is in recess, cargo ships that have been waiting to be scrapped are beached and dismantled by teams of men equipped with what are by comparison to the job, the most primitive tools. Fatal injuries are a regular part of the job. This diptych belongs to a sizeable body of work and is distinguished from Burtynsky’s other work through the inclusion of human subjects. But it is still misleading to consider this body of work as documenting deplorable third world labor conditions. They are conspicuously beautiful. As the scale of the image, not to mention the scale of human subjects in the image, suggests, Burtynsky is a landscape photographer. This body of work is no different than previous work that treated industrially decimated tracts of land as cultural ruins no less beautiful than romantic landscape imagery of the 19th Century. At first glance, the diptych resembles something of a village scene until the scale becomes apparent. The massive rusted bulkheads at the far left and right edges of the diptych, frame a distant group of workers, placing them at the center of a canyon. The bulkheads take on geological proportions making this an all too man-made Monument Valley.
A substantial portion of Southeast Asia’s economy revolves around tourism. This is particularly true of Bali, a destination that has become a stereotype of tropical excess and the exotic. Jeff Cater and Susan Giles’ works, Footage (2000) and Viewfinder (1999) are critical reflections on their roles as artists/tourists in Bali. The video segment in Footage features a stream of pedestrians in a formal procession filmed from the knees down. Although the artists’ intent was to capture the procession, this incidental clip of video, taken from a curbside vantage point as Carter and Giles were learning to use the camera, became an endearing hallmark of the tourist who can’t see the subject for the lens. The circular, kinetic display mimics the act of walking and renders the video clip a loop that seamlessly merges rituals of celebration, migration and ultimately voyeurism. Unlike the ideal view depicted in a travel agency poster, Viewfinder exploits the mundane rather than the spectacular. Immaculately crafted from chipboard, the seven miniature models are of objects taken from the artists’ travel snapshots. Each of the seven objects is rendered in a uniform scale, measuring 16 inches in its tallest dimension. Just as the camera’s viewfinder equalizes all experiences, making them fit the same format, the ubiquitous presence of sandals, pagodas, bananas, jeeps, and airport seats as all these things appear in thousands of other tourists snapshots represents the generic nature of tourist memories which Carter and Giles in turn idealize.
Travel photography usually refers to images of the destination and not travel itself. For Siegrun Appelt and Michelle Keim, the term travel photography literally refers to the trajectory of trains and airplanes. Both artists use the camera to conduct motion studies. Keim’s Air Traffic (2000) series captures the flight patterns of jets in the night skies above Chicago. Under long exposures, the jet’s headlights and winglights become elegant bands of thin, bright, converging lines. The web resulting from intersecting bands is rife with associations about the inter-connectedness of contemporary life from the movement of people to the fiber-optic flow of information. Appelt is both a photographer and video artist whose work rests on an obvious yet fundamental distinction between the two media. Namely, that video captures motion while photography freezes motion. This boundary, however, can literally be blurred depending on whether there is motion around the frame, motion in the frame or whether the frame itself is moving. Appelt’s contribution to Detourism is Napoli - Roma, (1996) a video and a pair of related photos taken from the window of a train traveling as the title suggests, from Naples to Rome. For both projects a stationary camera was focused at infinite depth of field and positioned in front of the window. The result is anything but objective documentation of the journey. Foreground, middleground and background slide indiscriminately across the screen at different speeds. This creates the sensation that things in the foreground are happening very fast while things in the background are moving very slow. This dizzying phenomenological experience neatly doubles as a metaphor for the rapidity of contemporary life versus the slow motion of history. This metaphor, however, is as old as the city itself. And few geographical sites could be as appropriate as the journey from Rome to Naples whose landscape is layer upon layer of metropolitan history. In relation to the video, the still photos do not capture what we are otherwise unable to see let alone remember. Instead, they freeze the act of forgetting.
Like Appelt’s video Napoli-Roma, David Servoss’ video, entitled DAVID (2001), is also a motion study. Whereas Appelt focused on the Italian landscape as it rushed across the lens horizontally, Servoss designates himself the center of the camera’s orbit as he whirls it over and around his head from a sling. Although simple, the effect is dizzying. Crucial to the success of the piece is the sling, which holds the lens in a fixed position. Appearing as a series of three lines that converge to a point, it fixes the image to the frame. But as a stabile element, it makes the motion in the frame all the more uncanny. The video is related to Axes (2001), a series of six plumb-bob sculptures, which likewise hang from slings. Made from porcelain, their elongated, conical form comes to a very precise point. Delicately modeled atop each cone is a specific site of personal significance to Servoss. Servoss was born in Coal City, Illinois and moved to Chicago when he was a teen. With the exception of the scene depicting his apartment building in Brooklyn, where he currently resides, the remainder are from the Midwest, with two from Chicago, the Foster Avenue Beach, and an apartment complex near the intersection of Western and Lawrence Avenues where much of his family still lives. The remaining scenes include a site in Interlochen, Michigan, and two scenes from Coal City, Illinois one of which captures the largest marker of the smallest town, namely its water tower. Each place holds a personal narrative, which Servoss is weaving into a mythology so as to ask what places we remember and why we remember them.
Suchan Kinoshita’s installation, Loudspeaker (1996) is literally a Hut of Babel. Like much of her work, Loudspeaker developed out of a performance which she has recorded for the video portion of the installation. In the video Kinoshita’s is seated between two individuals each of whom whisper different things in her ear. Kinoshita, who is fluent in English but whose native language is Dutch, attempts to translate what is being said to her (usually in Dutch) into English. The result is a humorous flow of babble. The work was later realized as an installation using a surveillance monitor, telescope, stereo, and a plywood structure. The work can only be viewed from the interior of the plywood structure, which is never freestanding but always dependent on the existing architecture. Inside the makeshift structure is a pair of speakers broadcasting the audio and a telescope through which to view the video portion of the piece as its displayed on a surveillance monitor across the gallery. By introducing issues of distance and disconnection alongside that of translation, the overwhelming sensation is of radical displacement. Kinoshita decentralizes the viewing subject who finds their body in one place (albeit a temporary space); their ability to make sense of language confounded; and their sight thrown by means of telescope across the gallery. Kinoshita is no doubt conveying a sense of her own experiences of never being at home, mentally, physically or geographically.
Whereas Kinoshita presents the ecstasy of communication as a non-sensical linguistic free-fall, Rainer Ganahl deals with the acquisition language in a more sober fashion. Language is an exchange of words for things and thoughts. The same way that tourism is unabashedly referred to as industry, language is referred to as an economy and Ganahl questions the extent to which language behaves as a commodity in the global marketplace. According to Ganahl the acquisition of another language always has a price-tag be it personal (love), professional (work) or political (displacement). As the title My First 500 Hours, Basic Chinese suggests, language acquisition is reduced strictly to time and is alienated from any social or natural context. The work consists of 250 video tapes of the artist sitting alone, learning Chinese via audio-taped exercises. Although language expresses thoughts and feelings relative to a particular context, the lack of a larger social context points to what Ganahl calls the translation industry. Under circumstances where language is alienated from a context where it acquires use-value, it is possible to think of the relative worth of languages as though they were currencies brokered against one another. Please Teach Me Albanian (1999), a T-shirt featuring that expression in Albanian, presents linguistic exchange as one of immediate supply and demand. Originally shown at the Venice Biennial during the height of the Kosovo conflict, the T-shirts were aimed at a displaced Albanian immigrant population whose native language would have been devalued. The plea is clearly absurd. It collapses onto a tourist item the distinction between linguistic understanding and the understanding of a deeper socio-political/cultural context; as though simply learning the language in and of itself would provide an understanding of a larger socio-political phenomenon that would make such an exchange possible in the first place.
But the question remains, once the language barrier is overcome, what is the nature and substance of deeper socio-economic and cultural differences we would seek to bridge? Many of our monumental terms, Islam, the West, for example are increasingly abstract if not impoverished. They fail to capture the complexity of a world that is not only round, but spins. History and geography have no recourse but to follow a circular logic similar to the syntactical redundancies of Gertrude Stein whose prose poem Geography (1923) could not help but serve as Detourism’s subtext. Just as a combination of the words detour and tourism suggests a waylaying of the escapist imagination seeking to get from here to there, Stein, forever questioning both terms, puts it less succinctly, Can you tell can you really tell it from here, can you really tell it can you tell it can you tell from here. From here to there and from there to there.