Saturday, 29 November 2014

Drawing and Politics

Easily the most powerful political drawing I have ever encountered is Francis Alys' The Green Line, subtitled 'sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic'. Jerusalem 2004. Find a video link here

One of the most basic actions when drawing is to make a line and a line has two sides. Lines are used to mark boundaries and boundaries are used to define territory; which means that drawing a line can lie directly at the centre of political decision making. Perhaps one of the most contentious areas of boundary making is related to the marking of boundaries within areas of open water, no landmarks or other visible indicators are available, therefore a complex series of equations are used. Maritime boundaries are calculated using a range of different kinds of baselines. The most basic is simply distance from the shore, from ‘the low-water line along the coast, including reefs, bays and river mouths. On the landward side of this baseline, we have internal waters and on the other side of the baseline territorial waters. However you then have to add in other factors, for instance negotiated treaties from the United Nations Law of the Sea, and the normally accepted 200 nautical mile buffer around any country's shoreline, which is the exclusive economic zone. However the political issues are those surrounding how these agreements are reached and how and why they are broken, the old principle of "mare librum" (or the free seas) being one that at one time or another most sea faring nations have used to allow them access to areas of the sea that have not yet been 'claimed'. The book, Lines in the Sea, is a great reference for these imaginary lines.

Finding the median line between France and England.

I have an imaginary network of lines in my head, a network of lines set out by the extent of each nation’s mythic value. The old Arthurian myths of England and France, finding a border between themselves and the Nordic tales of old Scandinavia; Thor’s day and Woden’s day rising again and erecting a line between themselves and a lost Camelot beneath Glastonbury Tor. The line of the Great Wall now entirely mythic as Chinese dragons battle for supremacy with the Russian Baba Yaga, a creature emerging from deep within dark forests, screaming spells from the window of her hut that stands tall upon giant chicken legs. Shiva protects the flank of India, his third eye radiating fire, his bow flexed, arrows poised, all ready to defend his lines, whilst the Jade Emperor attempts to control all Heavenly airspace by arming flying monkeys in the sky. A line is drawn between China and Japan as the Watatsumi sea dragon fights with the Jade Emperor’s monkey over a shifting boundary between the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Across the world North America’s Spider Grandmother and Mute Girl descend on South America as borders are drawn across the land that lies beneath her web and the burning forests of Jaguar, the Mexican Master of Fire. Giant kangaroos emerge from the deserts of Australia and fight with Godzilla in the South Asian seas, Hercules re-emerges on the Greek mainland and disputes Turkish boundaries with Gilgamesh, whilst Easter Island heads stride out into the sea to make war with the Atlantians. New borders are drawn up everywhere as old myths dissolve and new ones emerge, Hollywood rises to push the borders of America over the Atlantic Ridge, Japanese manga fighting back over the Philippines, Doctor Who finally emerging as the British dark horse.
These imaginary lines between cultural influences are as real as the mathematical medians that are drawn on maps between nations. They are all ideas, England is simply an idea that is not Scotland.

Art and Language produced a drawing back in the 1960s 'Map to not indicate' which pointed to the power of maps to assert control over the world. 

Art and Language 'Map to not indicate' 1967

"The extensive title (below the map rectangle) lists all the geographic areas that the artists have removed from the map. Only Iowa and Kentucky are outlined and labelled but, floating like islands, they lose geographical relevance, metaphorically cast adrift from their cartographic moorings". Tate Gallery July 2006. In this case what is not on the map, is more important than what is, a strategy that echoes the way Government tax and other codes work to ensure we are all 'controlled' by being numbered, and yet disempowered by not being registered as voters or as citizens. The grid of information can control but also isolate those elements outside of its panoptican gaze. 

Lewis Carroll iThe Hunting of the Snark, laid out the rules of this game with maps. He understood the arbitrary nature of all maps and that they are always the result of someone's decision to control something. 

Only the blank map can set us free from ownership, and this is perhaps Carroll's most succinct political statement.

The grid of the map is of course a power structure. The first thing that happens to a new territory is that it is mapped and once mapped it can be owned. Deleuze has this to say when writing about Foucault's understanding of maps and diagrams, he sees the diagram as an extension of the map, diagrams being able to penetrate all fields of human activity, in effect 'mapping' our thoughts. "The diagram is no longer an auditory or visual archive but a map, a cartography that is coextensive with the whole social field. It is an abstract machine… What is a diagram? It is a display of the relations between forces which constitute power in the above conditions” See Link here to The Funambulist for more of Deleuze's text and more thoughts surrounding these issues.  
However artists will always seek to subvert these debates, Thomas Hirschhorn has often used diagrams to illustrate social and political dynamics. He often works to raise awareness of social and political issues and will host debates and small conferences with local people as a piece of work is developed. 

Thomas Hirschhorn / Marcus Steinweg

Joseph Beuys often used diagrams on blackboards to illustrate his ideas, a technique he shared with Rudolf Steiner, his socialist ideas influencing his teaching as well as his art practice. Because he strongly believed in art's power to influence political change he would not differentiate a lecture and its accompanying blackboard drawings from the rest of his work. Everything the artist did was art.  (His lecturing job was withdrawn because he wanted to accept any student onto the courses he was teaching on, because as he stated; "everyone is an artist"). 
 Beuys lecturing
Joseph Beuys

Rudolf Steiner

Artist and activist Burak Arikan has been making maps of the art world. His artists politics network map for the 7th Berlin biennale 2012, demonstrating that all artists can be seen as political, as well as of course illustrating that networks of information are themselves aesthetically beautiful. 

Burak Arikan

Agnes Denes is not just politically motivated, she is also concerned to make her responses realities. She is fascinated by systems and patterns, making detailed and delicate drawings, using visual mathematics. In Tree Mountain -- A Living Time Capsule, conceived in 1982 and planted in Finland in 1992-96, Denes created a mountain and planted it with eleven thousand pine trees. The trees were planted in an intricate spiralling mathematical pattern as a land reclamation project. In this case drawings, initially operating as plans for ideas, were actually realised. 

Agnes Denes

My earlier post on grids looked at them as much more empowering structures, structures that related to weaving and networks and like so many structures they can be used to both empower us and disempower us. Artists when making images have choices and one of those choices is whether or not to take a political stance in relation to their practice. Maps and diagrams are very powerful drawing tools and the marking of a boundary line is perhaps the first indication of what we now think of as private property. Where do you as an artist 'draw the line'?
An alternative approach to politics is that taken by artists such as Hogarth or more recently Sue Coe, artists who use their image making skills to highlight aspects of society's ills, rather than making direct political interventions. I shall be posting on this other position in the near future and asking questions as to whether or not political art can ever be effective. In the meantime I'll leave you with Chad McCall, he designs political images using computer drawing tools and prints them off as very large scale images.

Chad McCail: 'Robots run Zombies for Wealthy Parasites', 2002

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