This text seeks to speculate on the conditions of geography and its contemporary portrayal, a theme perused as a running thread through numerous theses from various departments of the Sandberg Instituut’s 2019 graduating class. However, this assessment was taken from a distance, based on gathered information from the school’s online catalogue and other sources. This unconventional format made for a discursive prompt to compose this (rambling) editorial musing.
Throughout the night of November 8th, 2016, an estimated 71-million T.V. viewers watched as Donald Trump gained the necessary amount of electoral college votes to become president of the United States. As they helmed various networks, top newscasters like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer employed the latest integrated-technology to precisely map-out the results. As tallies ‘poured in,’ different states were periodically coloured-in as either blue or red. These sudden ‘projections’ and ‘too-close-to-call’ instances confirmed the aspirations of some and dashed the hopes of others.
Perhaps in the bizarre but plausible duality of palpable anxiety and voyeuristic spectacle, viewers were kept at the ‘edge of their seats’, or at least till the ‘point of no return’ became inevitable. The entire happening was a performance of sorts and like any worthwhile gesamtkunstwerk mounted on a major opera or dance stage – a Broadway production of the Lion King or a revival of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – the implementation of a full, holistic scope of external devices was crucial in maintaining the audience’s attention: lighting, costume, but also sound effects and sensationalist backdrop imagery.
Though deploying the latest ‘data and whiz-bang’ interactive screen technology on this night and no other, as to promote these branded innovations with the same amplitude as the event itself, the showman conductors attempted to provide a level of objectivity. Zooming deep into the seemingly homogenized, colour-blocked electoral map of the United States with hand and finger gestures, similar to swiping an iPad, the newscasters uncovered a far more complex picture.
A more granulated breakdown of different regions emerged to, perhaps, dispel the simplified stigmas of so-called red and blue states. Even more telling in these geographic demonstrations was the complex nature of proximity: the extreme polarity of two neighbouring districts or between urban and rural areas; the sharp contrast between Los Angeles proper and its surrounding suburbs or how Houston and Dallas exist as blue islands, floating in a sea of red Texas.
And yet, what these presenters failed to communicate, other than obvious categorizations, were the extenuating sociopolitical, historical, and ecological factors that might make portions of the postindustrial rust-belt vote differently than New York City; why traditionally blue states like Wisconsin and Michigan went red in this presidential election; or how the particular geography and shifting geology of one specific area could influence these statistics. Regardless of their attempt to provide a more accurate assessment, amidst the smokescreen fog of technological novelty, this ‘magical board’ phenomenon hinted at an even larger complexity.
It’s become a cliche to talk about how our society is saturated by information or how it’s become harder to decipher what is true. However, we rarely consider how this changing reality impacts our comprehension of geography; how the representation and depiction of space itself is presented, packaged, twisted, and skewed. As much as the translation of quantitative data into visualized maps and other forms of imagery can appear dynamic and feel engaging, this method rarely accomplishes anything other than momentary gratification. One might argue that the fraudulence of the United States’ intermediary electoral college system is propagated, in part, by the ability to manipulate, dilute, and abridge American’s collective perspective of geography. Like with any other means of dissemination, this condition stems from how a particular focus or argument is framed.
One might suggest that the gross external product of The United States is its ability to fabricate war and maintain a military presence abroad. One misleading map depicts just that as a measure of aggregated time: highlighting every country the United States has invaded. The assessment is damning and even overwhelming in percentage. But what would happen if someone were to physically plot the areas where US military presence was actually felt rather than employ a map of the world to depict influence, as it corresponds to political borders and territorial definition. The difference would be drastic. Libya is a country primarily made-up of a sparsely-inhabited desert. Coloured demarkations should denote areas of impact rather than the entire nation.
Drawing a broad stroke across a roughly-plotted plane or filling in a political map based on a colour-coded typology is less rigourous than trying to analyse data as it might metaphysically correspond to the topological corrugations or ecological intricacies of a given locale. We prefer to name cities and defined countries as finite entities rather than chart shifting geologies. The practice derives from Industrial Revolution-era standardization and works well within humanity’s cultivated superiority complex and colonialist mentality. Perhaps simplicity is more digestible and feasible, but ultimately more efficient. At what costs? Europe’s policy of rapidly sweeping through and dividing Africa in the late 19th-century reflected competition, conquest, and geometric simplicity, rather than an understanding or respect for existing cultural boundaries. Different colonial forces carved up the land mass as if was a loaf of bread. Perhaps their only informed concern was where highly-sought-after natural resources could be found and extracted. The ramifications of this policy left a lasting mark on the continent and its continued instability, half a century after most territories achieved independence.
Today, our collective perception of place, direction, and distance is inherently as unreliable as it was before the advent of the machine-age; when new modes of mechanised transportation – the antiquation of our own legs and feet – were supposed to help us improve these qualities. It could be argued that these innovations aided our exponential ‘discovery’ of every last parcel of shared earthly dominion but this hurried pace didn’t allow us to fully comprehend its scope and scale. Before, our perception of space was limited to our immediate surroundings or where a horse and carriage could bring us within an advantageous amount of time. Then again, it’s perhaps too nostalgic and romantic to think that our comprehension of geography was more visually complex and hence accurate before the Industrial Revolution. The ability to map and chart space – the differentiation of emotional awareness and machine-accuracy – was the result of this epochal shift.
And yet, new forms of immediate and readily-available representation have not helped us in our quest to better understand space. We still require the age-old compass to orient our understanding of North, South, East, and West. The language we use to informally indicate distance or direction is still skewed and geographically inaccurate: “Downtown,” “Uptown,” “over there,” “deep Harlem.” These colloquialisms have come to mean entirely different things. Often our willingness to go to a codified area is informed by an economic, cultural, political attitude rather than a factual reality of geographic distance; however, defined by transportation and accessibility.
As controversial as the consumer-grade novelty of Google Maps and Google Earth might have been when first debuted in the early 2000s, these services were gradually adopted as another mainstay of our image-heavy material culture. These technologies merged into our daily lives as eventual necessities. Were the physical paper maps we used before any better at helping us ‘get situated’? Today, one could argue that the cultural perception of these tools cannot compare to how they are employed by larger entities, that make systemic use of them for both good and evil. A tool is a tool is a tool, and as an animated object, can be shaped by a number of interpretations and implementations.
Why not then, play with the untidy nature of spatial interpretation, and allow it to mirror our gradual, non-linear, acceptance of social fluidity. We should allow space, at scales that are manageable within the scope of a group of individuals, to accommodate multiple functions and modes of identity making. At the same time, we should employ geographical representation as a medium that can be inverted, remixed, and subverted as ways to pose commentary about the medium’s own nature or other existential quandaries.
In trying to fathom the complexity of how space, land, and environment shape our sense of heritage and identity, even if at a distance when forcibly displaced or choosing to emigrate, geographic perception becomes a malleable medium of representation. Is our place of birth, upbringing, cultivation, or education a determinant in how we define ourselves; our character, mentality, means of expression, thought processes, or how we choose to treat a given topic?
The catalogue for this year’s Sandberg Instituut indexes its graduates by their date and place of birth (city and country), rather than the traditional indication of nationality, which in this case might be entirely different. Is this method successful in providing critical distance, removing the impulse to judge a graduate’s output – chosen scope of investigation and resulting form? One undeniable fact is that all of these students lived and studied in or around Amsterdam for some given amount of time. Did this context – the amalgamated culture and mentality it encompasses – impact each talent’s decisions? Did they come to this school for this influence or for its particular pedagogy?
What would a map, similar to the one that charts every country the US has invaded or has had a military presence in, achieve with the roster of this year’s graduates. How would the sociopolitical and cultural stigmas of Italy, Lebanon, and the Netherlands play in how we might try to contextualise each project. This alludes to the age-old dilemma of trying to separate the artist from the artwork.
Adrian Madlener is a Brussels-born, New York-based art, architecture, and design writer. A designer-turned-journalist, he studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven and at the Parsons/Cooper Hewitt History of Design and Curatorial Studies programme. Madlener has worked as an editor at Frame Magazine and TL Magazine. With a particular interest in critical, philosophical, and sociological topics that address the strongest demonstrations of craft-led experimentation. He contributes to numerous European and U.S.-based publications.