(PHILIMONOS) Today, I was thinking again of world maps, the modern ones specifically. I may not like them anymore, but I remember that I used to find them mesmerising: how they represented the oceans, the poles, where one state ends and another begins, usually showing capital cities and perhaps some large mountains and rivers. When I first saw one of these maps, I thought that someone must have travelled above a flat earth, at a distance that would afford them a panoramic view, and quickly took a picture of it. Even now, this same thought occurs to me, but it instantaneously slips away. I still like city maps; they may not look so impressive, but they contain an admirable amount of information: highways, thoroughfares, roads, streets, crescents, city halls, town halls, churches, museums, galleries, monuments, hotels, and so on. This kind of map brings to mind a different thought, one of someone who has walked countless times up and down the same street and meticulously taken notes of every single detail.
(DI MASSIMO) My initial thoughts around the concept of the border emerged from an act of observation. I noticed a certain resemblance between the path of a river and a stock option index. I also noticed that these images are not only visually similar, but they both function as a border: a geographical and an economic one, respectively.
I remember physical and political maps stuck on the walls of classrooms, on the pages of geography books and on the wall of my bedroom. Maps let me see the whole world, and I found this quite extraordinary. Yet for many years, I didn’t realise the idea they were naturalising in me. Having seen the earth demarcated into different nation states since my earliest school years, I came to believe that the earth had been carved up by the forces of nature alone, that countries had come to inhabit their respective pieces of land naturally and, therefore, that the demand for national sovereignty was a natural phenomenon too and not a social construct. With retrospect, I didn’t challenge this false belief for many years.
As a result of this intuition, I investigated the idea of the border beyond its geographical representation, focusing on its architectural (Image 2), economic, cultural (Image 1) and political features.
I cannot remember the exact time I started disliking modern maps. Perhaps it was when I first visited the British Museum and saw The Babylonian Map of the World. Although it took me some time to consolidate the reasoning behind my dislike, I think a feeling of bewilderment came over me at the moment I saw that map. I can very vividly recall its every detail; it was introduced to us as the first world map, made in the sixth century BCE. I remember finding this introduction ludicrous: it was just a sun, whose contour stood for the “salty” ocean, engraved upon a crumbling clay tablet. Its five remaining rays – three are lost – correspond to five islands, and in the middle of the sun, some geometric shapes stand for eight cities, a mountain and a river. Amongst these cities is Babylon, hailed as the centre of the world at that time. Carved alongside the rays are texts that speak of the exotic beasts that live in distant places, far away from the “known world”. On the top and back of the tablet, a now fragmented story describes a battle between two gods that resulted in the creation of Babylon, its language and its human order.
This research led me to an inevitable confrontation with cartography, where, by focusing my research on the whole image of the Earth rather than on any specific areas, I reconsidered the role of its representation in the contemporary world order. As a result, I used processes such as distortion and modification to produce new comprehensive images that aim to reveal maps’ imaginative and discursive potential.
The Babylonian Map of the World belongs to a group of maps known as the Early World Maps, made between the sixth century BCE and 1794. From the earliest map to the last one, there are huge variations in how the whole world is represented. I am fond of these historical maps, but most of all I like Die ganze Welt in einem Kleberblatt (The Entire World in a Cloverleaf), made in 1581. A colourful three-leaf clover floats on a turbulent sea that is dotted with the little green heads of sea creatures. Each of its leaves represents a different continent: Africa, Asia and Europe, with the disk at the centre as Jerusalem, believed to be the centre of the world at the time. America is pushed to the edge of the map, amorphous and cropped. This is why I like the Early World Maps: because they illustrate how all maps, and the understanding of the world that they sustain, are products of each time’s prevailing knowledge, ideology, politics, and other societal constructs.
By intervening directly with the visual components of the map (for example keys, land masses and colour palette), I found that the map was gradually becoming a versatile device with which to address a broad range of topics. At this stage, my works focused on the reorganisation of the Earth’s shape. This process led me to seek out a more abstract approach, almost as an attempt to take distance from the structured image of a world map.
A few days after I first saw Die ganze Welt in einem Kleberblatt – or rather, an interpretation of it in an artists’ studio in Edinburgh – I started reading R. Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. The initial part is a story about the first ever Pirates, also known as the Great Pirates, who built grand ships to travel across the Oceans to fight for the establishment of universal power. In doing so, they worked clandestinely, discovering, producing, and establishing knowledge, which then they toiled to keep hidden away, releasing only an inconsiderable amount of it. The knowledge they disclosed led people to believe that the earth – and the world as organised by humans – works successfully only in pieces, whereby one piece has to fight with and dominate the other in order to attain the necessities of its survival. And thus, the Great Pirates have maintained the sovereignty of their respective territories.
Just a few days ago, I accessed Google Maps – its graphic mode – and zoomed in as much as possible, focusing on the black line that stood for the border between two countries, whose names I have now forgotten. I wondered what the actual place would look like, so I tried the satellites images option. I could see plenty of trees, and again the same black line cutting across them, separating the one tree from the other.The idea of separating trees made me laugh, in the same way that the disputed border between the town of Baarle-Nassau, Netherlands and Baarle-Hertog, Belgium does. Baarle-Hertog consists of 26 pieces of land, with 22 of them being surrounded by the Dutch territory of Baarle-Nassau. This convoluted geo-political arrangement has been materialised into dividing lines, rendered with white paint, that can literally be seen on the ground when walking around the streets. These lines, though often conceived as a profitable tourist attraction or a humorous landscape note, have been causing troubles to the residents of the two towns as, for instance, seeking for a planning permission could be very complicated when half of one’s home belongs to the Netherlands and the other half to Belgium.
After observing, representing, modifying and re-composing the trope of the border through the map’s metaphor, I decided to focus on its dissolution.
It seems that dividing lines are not just lines, and that they do not merely divide. I was recently reading Étienne Balibar’s book on borders and their meaning, Politics and the Other Scene. Balibar eloquently describes how a political border is not just a line that separates two nation-states or, for that matter, that happens to cut between two neighbouring trees. Simply put, a border always is and does something more: it shapes and gives meaning to the world, and subsequently defines the ways we live in it. In Balibar’s argument, borders have no essence that stays intact; what they mean and the experiences they generate vary according to their time and place; borders reductively define (and impose) national identities, creating a sense of belonging and, accordingly, non-belonging. Borders stand in front of each of us in different ways: holding a European passport, I would easily cross the border between Austria and Germany, whereas someone from Nigeria would not cross it the same way, if they could cross it at all. Borders are not firm lines; they mutate according to history and they mutate differently for each of us according to our position in history: they include and exclude; they allow movement or they are raised as impermeable blockages. Regardless of their fictitious, constructed nature, borders in their current state are not less real than the air we breathe, since, for many, they are a matter of life and death.
I cannot recall many details of the year 2000 – except for the fear-mongering that revolved around a global breakdown in computers’ operating systems and red t-shirts stamped with ‘2000’ surrounded by glittery fireworks. Some of those who can remember that year, and the years just before and after it, still recall how they truly believed that borders wouldn’t be an issue in years to come; the whole of humanity was connecting, all experiencing capitalism as the same mode of production, and freely sharing words and images via the Internet. Anti-capitalist movements were rekindling, aiming to seize global connectivity and turn it from a solely economic force into a social one. Despite these hopes and struggles, borders have remained one of the prevailing modes of the organisation of society, while the power they hold over lives and bodies is still being brutally manifested, especially during recent years. Nevertheless, they remain a site of resistance.
In the current world order, globalisation seems to have pushed the concept of the border to the extremes. As a reaction to this observation, the maps I was creating began to change. The countries are now suddenly downgraded to abstract shapes and colours, their boundaries are blurring, almost disappearing.
Anastasia Philimonos is an art historian and curator based in Edinburgh. She was an Associate Producer at Collective Gallery where she developed texts responding to each of the Solo exhibitions of Satellites Programme 2016 and curated a group exhibition titled W.W.W. (Whole World Working).
Alessandro Di Massimo is an artist based in Edinburgh, with an upcoming exhibition in Glasgow International.