Modern sculpture has reshaped the art world. New art has encouraged artists to experiment with their work while breaking from the old age culture of narrative. The art of creating beautiful-looking portraits is no longer practiced. The emphasis of modern art was on symbolism. The new art movement lasted from the 1860s to the 1970s and was mostly synonymous with industrialization. The era of modern art was influenced by painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat. Classic art gave way to experimental art in the first half of the twentieth century. Contemporary artists have revolutionized the field of art much more than the artists belonging to the modern art era. Contemporary art provided an opportunity to reflect about the contemporary society in which we live and the world surrounding us. The advancements in telecommunications made it possible for the contemporary artists to work in a technologically advanced, globally influenced, and culturally diverse world. The art produced by contemporary artists is a dynamic interaction of materials, people, and subjects. One of the most distinguishing feature of contemporary art is the lack of any kind of uniformity and ideology. Many art critics opine that contemporary art is the part of cultural dialogue that is concerned with larger contextual frameworks like personal and cultural identity, nationality and community. Many laymen have an idea that both modern art and contemporary art are the same. This mistake is precipitated very commonly in modern English media.
One of the most recent developments in the field of contemporary art is ‘Experimental Geography’. Experimental Geography refers to a form of geography that lies at the crossing of art and experimentation. The discipline of geography has its roots some millennia back. Graphs and charts of the world were prepared by Greek philosophers based on their limited understanding of the world. In fact for many people, Geography still simply means maps. Maps which describe, countries, their capitals, and nature like mountains, forests, and lakes. According to Paglen (1) that idea of experimental geography is not entirely wrong. During the time of renaissance, philosophers like Pedro Reinel have rediscovered the ancient geography texts by Greek philosophers and aided the imperial ambitions of great European powers like Spain and Portugal. Cartographers were one of the most highly paid professionals of the imperial era as their work was indispensable for imperial expansion. The ‘new world’ (America) was systematically colonised with the help of the maps produced by the famous cartographer of the sixteenth century Juan de la Cosa who has accompanied Columbus on his three voyages between the Atlantic.
In the words of Trevor Paglen who has first coined the term ‘experimental Geography’ in her book of the same name, another cartographic renaissance is taking shape around us. Advancements made in the field of communications and satellite imagery have produced a number of free software applications like MapQuest and Google Earth that have become a part and parcel of everyone’s life. I totally agree with this view of Paglen (3) regarding the growing dependency on these modern cartographic tools as I myself do not remember a navigation in my own city without the help of these tools. Gone are days when one have to navigate past in an unknown city asking directions from others. This unique benefit of these cartographic tools have made them a cultural phenomenon. Aided with technologies like GPS connected smartphones, any person can easily navigate the world. In the area of contemporary art, a number of cultural producers have been utilizing the power of a map. I too have noticed this amalgamation of geography and art at many places. Due to these advancements in cartography, the old cartographic maps too have grown in significance. A number of exhibitions in city museums and art galleries are dedicated to a divergent range of cartography. The assimilation of art with geography is visible around us everywhere. Sewn cities on cloth spill out of suitcases made by luxury furniture makers like Cartier. Other manifestations of the fusion of geography with art are found in areas like performers climbing the sides of major buildings in the world, bus tours through important geographical landmarks like water treatment centres, and sound art in major cities of the world like Boston (Thompson).
Every major technology company in the world like Google to Apple now want to own a mapping technology. Academic research too has laid its eyes on the new powers of map making. A new kind of discipline called geographical information systems (GIS) has emerged for collecting data in diverse disciplines like biology, climatology, and archaeology. However, Paglen (6) suggests that even though geography and cartography are located in the within the same departments of universities, they propose a different way of looking at the world. Geography is perceived as a very powerful interdisciplinary area of research. Geography departments in all the major universities of the world are filled with people studying the impact of climate change to effect of sovereign wealth funds on the real estate markets of some of the major financial centres of the world. Geography has its roots firmly set in the philosophical tradition of materialism. Materialism is the idea that the world is made up of fluff (or matter). It conceives that all the phenomena in the world arise out of the interactions in the world. Going back the great Greek philosophers like Democritus and Epicurus, materialism suggests an empirical approach to studying the world. In her seminal article, Paglen (8) also quotes that the second key of Geography as ‘the production of space’.
After summarizing the background and axioms of geography, Paglen talks about the interaction of geography with art. According to her the theories that form the discipline of geography need not stay within the boundaries of the discipline. The author says that these can be applied to any other discipline which can interact with it. The view expressed is very much agreeable. Here geography is viewed as an interdisciplinary discipline which is similar to mathematics. Even though a pure science, mathematics is used in disciplines which range from sciences like Physics to social sciences like anthropology. Expanding the realm of a discipline can yield a number of positive results. Using the theories and axioms developed in mathematics in other disciplines yielded a number of positive results in the form of expansion in the understanding of the scholars of these respective disciplines. Just like geographers use their theories to study the relationship between carbon emissions and receding ice sheets, a geographic approach to art will quite different from the conventional art history and criticism.
While talking about the origins of experimental geography discipline, the main author of the book Thompson traces its roots to two major philosophical schools. The first is the Situationist’s practice during the decade intervening between 1950 and 1960 which was concerned with curtailing the ill effects of capitalism. The second is the writings of Michel de Certeau’s writings between 1970 and 1980. Both these themes are exhibited in a much praised exhibition that is held recently (Pearce).
The roots of experimental geography stretch much behind the pioneering work of Paglen. One of the earliest thinkers who has conceptualized the merger of art with geography was Walter Benjamin. In an essay titled ‘The Author as Producer’ published in the year 1934 he prefigured what experimental geography entailed in relation to cultural production. One of the most significant aspects of the work by Walter Benjamin is that his essay was published much before the contemporary art movement started around the world during the 1970s. Most of the work done by Walter Benjamin was done while he was in exile during the time Paris was occupied by the Nazis. Benjamin perceived cultural production an intrinsically political endeavour. While working on his essay, he has set his intellectual task as theorizing how the different aspect of cultural production might be made into an overall anti-fascist project. Towards the end of the essay Walter Benjamin muses about the transformative capabilities of art.
The work of Experimental Geography by Paglen successfully expands the Benjamin’s paper. Following the ideas proposed by Walter Benjamin, experimental geography does not accept that artists cannot stay outside of politics. Artists along with journalists ought to play an activist role in the society. But asking the artists of experimental geography to be a part of the political and social movements of the society, Paglen proposes to make the budding science more humane in its approach. Having an open mind on the happenings in the social and political realm can have its own advantages. By actively absorbing outside ideas, adherents of the discipline can take advantage of the opportunities that come on their own in the spatial practices of culture.
The chapter in the book by Paglen gives a fresh perspective on the emergence of contemporary art. The author sheds light on one of the emerging but mostly ignored fields of art. By terming the coin Experimental Geography, Paglen highlights that the confluence of the discipline of geography which was mostly utilized for understanding factors impacting the climate change with contemporary art to enable a much better understanding of the world around us. Influenced by the work of Paglen it might be expected (and hoped for) that some of the experimental geographers might get more interested in geography going forward. But experimental geography can serve as a reminder to the practitioners of geography and cartographers who have lost their social and political responsibilities towards the society. It is hoped that spending some of their valuable book might persuade them to better utilize the rare talents they carry along with them.
Pearce, Margaret Wickens. “Review of Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanism.” Cartographic Perspectives. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
Thomson, Nato. Experimental Geography. London: Melville House, 2002. Print.
Thompson, Nato. “Experimental Geography.” Miller Gallery. 31 Jan. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.