TEXTS ON ARCHIPELAGO, A WORLD MAP:
INTERVIEW WITH HAMDI ATTIA BY ABDELLAH KARROUM
This interview with Hamdi Attia by Abdellah Karroum accompanies the exhibition Archipelago, a World Map.
Hamdi Attia’s exhibition at Hordaland Art Centre in Bergen proposes one work, one place, and one object. The artist’s proposal departs from reality and arrives in fiction. It interrogates our notion of formulation in relation to the appearance of an artwork. The signification of an artwork today, in the era of ecological panic on earth, has become relative. After a time of certainty, what is relativism for the artist?
In the collaborative and multistage project World Map, developed since 2004, Hamdi Attia observes realities and proposes what comes across as a projection of possibilities, which are fundamental to his work. The time and area a valid art production occupies are longer and larger than the duration and the space of an exhibition. The artwork appears (or happens) and tells its own story, but what about history?
At the same time as human action driven by a political goal can have ecological effects on the planet, art production question this relationship between the political agenda and the ecological issues. So, one question is how an artwork can contribute to the debate about the ecological challenges of the planet. Artists use science, philosophy and poetry to build a language that can transgress diverse limitations. The border between Archipelago, a World Map and reality is very permissive in the sense that the visual elements are inspired by experimental parts of a world which is ultra controlled. The artist creates a paradox by making a seemingly free world using map fragments of closed spaces, floating parts, with no barriers and no grids. What are facts?
An Art History cannot make sense today if it does not include memory or if it is detached from the world’s continuous movement. What differentiates art from activism is the degree of poetic dimension. How can an artistic project still exist (resist) in this context?
Curators criticise art speculation, yet participate in the biggest auctions; artists denounce museums, yet join their collections; politicians build museums and commission biennials both to promote tourism and drown expression. The combination of these actions creates a system in which every artwork potentially disappears as a project. Every intellectual contributes to the wave of over-production, creating a visual tsunami which might contribute to the end of human intelligence. To have possibilities, more than speculations, can be a way of resisting both forced movement and global propaganda. Resistance can in other words be from a different side, given the opportunity. The rebels who resisted yesterday too often become the resident dictators of today. Is ethics a form of resistance?
In his project, Hamdi Attia connects history with knowledge. Knowledge tells history. The entire World Map project is based on geography. The study of geologic movements applies natural sciences and represents the world by making maps. Different times in history use different representations to reach different goals. Old maps are considered heritage, while new maps are mere practical tools. Is history knowledge?
These questions pervade the following interview with Hamdi Attia which started in Attia’s studio in Chicago in February 2010, and has gone through several steps of transformation, formulation and re-formulation by continued conversation and writing. This dialogue is articulated as an ensemble of definitions and the artist’s vision. The exhibition at Hordaland Art Centre presents a single work, which functions autonomously as a visual experiment, but also in connection with the different issues discussed below. The artist’s responses to the one-word questions are the key or legend to his World Map. More than a comment on the artwork, this dialogue responds to the over arching question: What can art bring to the world?
Abdellah Karroum (AK):
Introduction. Can you describe the Archipelago, a World Map?
Hamdi Attia (HA):
The project is a new part of a larger body of cartographic work that draws on contemporary maps and the history of map making. The idea emerged from a series of workshops to collectively explore mapping and remapping as a self-contained world of process itself. All maps were subject to examination – from the medieval ages (for example those by Arab geographer Al-Idrissi) to contemporary satellite images of the earth. The relationship between the mapped physical elements and the political layout, on a map, was the key study of this investigation. However, while composing maps, we draw the attention to this relationship through avoiding issues of familiarity that come with any representation of any part of our world. For example when you see a map of North America or Africa, it comes with a familiar package of information. To start with "real" maps as a motive, as a metaphor, has been used so much in literature and art. An imaginary map of an imaginary world would free the research from any already configured forms of power. It would define the power of the map and be irreverent to the very act of mapping. The World Map project is a cartographic articulation of the research that was done in these workshops. It is simply a reflection on issues regarding the world we live in. In Archipelago, a World Map I wanted to go one step further, starting with a part of the real world that is already re-configured in order to invest in using that process of exploration with this very familiar package of information. Any map of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank strikes me as a portrait of a group of islands in a body of water. I was fascinated to see cartoonish maps on pro-Palestinian web-sites that have the same approach. The challenge here is how to transform the narrow political approach of the situation into a multilayered and playful one.
What strikes me about maps made in the Middle Ages is the fact that mapmakers depicted the known areas in full detail, while the unknown areas surrounding them were depicted as imaginary geographical representations. In other words, cartographic practices translated the knowledge of the world in a way that the known became the "centre" and the unknown became the "margins." The marginal imaginary parts functioned as an enabling background for the central known parts to expand and to be resized or repositioned. The unknown part was ornament in different forms. The unknown area becomes a field for imagination. Thus, maps became visual manifestations of the ideologies of empire-building, as well as representations of the empires themselves that were being built, often through religious worldviews. For example, Mecca was seated as the focal centre in the Arab/Muslim maps, while Jerusalem became the focal centre in European/Christian maps. Not only that, but such ideologies and worldviews that accompanied empire-building were also key factors behind the selection, prioritization, and classification of geographic data entries on maps.
Over the course of millions of years, climate forcing mechanisms like plate tectonics, solar system shifts, orbital variations, volcanic activities, and shifts in oceanic masses are responsible for reconfiguring global land and water areas and generating topography. In recent history, and regardless of the politicized aspects of the matter, we acknowledged that anthropogenic factors contribute to climate change. This means that human activities became recognized as one of the major climate forcing mechanisms. In other words, throughout the history of Earth, manmade influences on the planet were limited to shaping the political, social, cultural layout. And now, as we know with global warming, human behaviours participate in shaping the physical appearance of the globe. When I look at the situation in the West Bank, the iconic political picture does not fully illustrate the facts on the ground. Rather, it flattens the reception of these facts and transforms them into a fuel for a political game. What the occupation does in the West Bank is not limited to the act creating fragments of isolated Palestinian lands for security reasons, the wide-scale construction of Israeli settlements for demographic purposes, the spread of military checkpoints and bases to control the population, or (famously) building the wall. The occupation also controls and manipulates the ecological system. Although it is not a systematic case, when wealthy Californians excessively use water for gardening and farming, they extract the groundwater from Nevada and expand its state of desertification. In the case of the West Bank, the groundwater is prioritized for the needs of the high lands, where the settlements are built.
Well, geopolitical signs suggest that there will be a set of problems concerning natural resources, particularly water, in the near future. When power is displayed in wars and conflicts, the example of the West Bank will be adapted, customized and multiplied throughout different regions of the globe. Already this example is applied worldwide. As we speak there are many cases of political tensions between countries over their shared riverbeds.
Artworks can go beyond raising questions by calling attention to the core elements of the explored subject and melt the boundaries between art and activism. Yes, the notion that art raises questions rather than offers answers has been said so many times and has become an art talk cliché, but what is the definition of "answers" in the first place? Answers start at the point where questions end. All the ways in which questions are dealt with, from the moment of its reception, could be considered parts of processing answers.
Needless to say, ecological issues are too serious to ignore when it comes to understanding how any occupation functions and how capable it is of politicizing any issue. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself is a victim of its fame and the way it's been viewed and discussed in the political venues and in the media. Sometimes it is painted as a religious conflict and at other times an ethnic one. Sometimes it is considered a regional problem and at others an international headache. By narrowing the debate to only deal with the duality of security measures versus terrorism functions as a kind of political agenda to consume time while ecological, demographic, and topographic facts are being generated on the ground. In this case, there is no room left for international efforts except for humanitarian work. The best comment I've heard about this situation is "What is the similarity between a natural disaster and the occupation? In both situations victims get humanitarian aid!" This was said by a boy in a refugee camp. In other words, both have ecological impacts on reality.
In modern and contemporary maps, what strikes me is that they are claimed to be objectively neutral as much as they are seen to be scientifically accurate. This is partly because all parts of the world are perceived as “known”, and the binary of known/unknown is no longer at play. Because neutrality and scientific accuracy is “proven” through the methodology of depicting spherical topography on flat surfaces using different cartographic projections with intense precision, there is no longer an imaginary "unknown" on which to project and enable political projects and worldviews.
The imagined part in the old maps was used ideologically, and also politically. The Mediterranean is not only represented as water mass. In some old maps Sicily was shown prominently because it fit in between two empires; Muslim and Christian. So the Mediterranean was like a bubble between the two worlds. That was a golden time for producing maps. It is maybe not an accident that Al-Idrissi made his maps while in Sicily. In contemporary methods of map-making, the projections do the same service. In colonial maps, with the Mercator projection for example, you have the North and the South stretched so much, so Europe looks much bigger than the areas around the Equator. So you can have Norway and Sweden looking three times bigger than India. In this case, what is presented as scientific is actually a politicized kind of map-making in the same way in which the imagined unknown areas where used for ideological purposes. The Atlas is an extension of that kind of agenda. In this case, science is a tool just like imagination was a tool before with the unknown world. This is my first interest in the map: the imagined unknown area in the old maps and the geometric character of the new maps put together. The geometric (read: scientific) grid method replaced the place of imagination in politics.
In the World Map project, I am trying to address this shift in map making by developing a realistic geopolitical picture of an imagined world which marries both the key elements of margins in the old maps which were based on imagination and the methodology of contemporary maps based on a grid of navigational points. In this process, removing the topographical elements from the contemporary world map and maintaining the latitude/longitude grid, while adding new formations of continental masses and islands, create the new physical picture. Also, layers of history are visible in the geopolitical layout, while socio-cultural aspects are reflected in the place-names of states, cities, and other map elements that are given different sizes and densities. This shift in map making is addressed in a way which calls attention to how maps shape our views of the world. In other words, the contemporary methodology is used to reinforce the function of imagination in old maps, thereby melting the boundaries between factual and fictional representations.
As I was saying earlier, all I hope for my work is to reach the point of melting the fine line between art and activism. I don’t think that I am bringing new thoughts when it comes to the critical studies of occupation or those of issues regarding climate change. Considering the ground of these two studies, this work extracts the politicized masks of both in order to draw a line between them. Also, back to the act of mapping, it tackles the function of imagination in the old map.
Conclusion. How do you position yourself and your work within today’s art creation?
In our lifetime we have witnessed unprecedented social, political, and technological changes worldwide, and art is an excellent reflection and even harbinger of these changes. It is not so much particular artists or schools that have impacted my work, but rather particular forms of «contemporary» visual culture. I am interested in the uses and agendas of technology and its social effects, and the failures of cultural translation via visual media. As an artist, I am struggling to find a way to deal with the complexity of the world today as it is made manifest in multiple and interlinking political, cultural, and social contexts. What makes this struggle very important and difficult for me is the anxiety over the rise of anti-liberal and right-wing forces in the international political scene, which affects art and its evaluation. Artists who perceive this situation as a repetition of certain histories are more able to keep a distance and have a broad, analytic vision than those who perceive the situation as exceptional and therefore tend to work on the level of passionate reaction. In other words, injustice, inequality, racism, and wars, are not specific to our world today; it is the heightened awareness of these things that is specific to our era. The act of art-making is an embodiment of this kind of awareness.