Invisible Geographies New Media Exhibition


Curator's Essay

Jerusalem, We are Here, by Dorit Naaman

Geographies suggest relationships between peoples and places. They imply ways for people to move from one place to another — or become rooted in a place. Literally meaning “earth-writing” (geo- as earth; -graphy as writing), geography is a mapping of space, a rendering of natural and built environments into cultural and political places via graphic signs and symbols. Geography defines space and our place in it in terms of proximity and congruity. Cities dot maps; lines demarcate borders; dotted lines chart trade and travel routes; colors represent topography, climate, political dependencies and sovereignties.

Invisible geographies suggest unmarked and unmapped relationships — or ones that may have been written but have subsequently been erased, obscured, or made illegible. Invisible geographies, thus, can reclaim repressed histories of stolen lands. They can uncover unacknowledged, unwanted, or repudiated connections between people and place. They look beyond proximities and congruities to discover what can be learned from distances and incongruities. They map what we cannot see or perhaps may not want to see, such as toxins in the air or water—or traces of villages bearing witness that lands were not uninhabited and uncultivated.

Through an imagined conversation between emperor Kublai Khan and explorer Marco Polo, novelist Italo Calvino teaches us to notice invisible cities that require looking beyond the surface, whether those cities lie below our feet or hover over our heads. He suggests what urban geographers today call unintended cities, places where social underclasses and environmental refugees increasingly turn to make new lives without the benefits of an electric grid, sewage system, or internet access. Invisible cities are part of invisible geographies that sometimes remain to be written and sometimes are permanently obscured and irretrievable.  

Invisible geographies can be rendered visible through acts of imagination, both by scientists, who explore uncharted depths of oceans and the universe, and by artists, who speculate about possible futures, whether utopic or dystopic. As environmental destruction, climate change, and species extinction rise alongside ethnocentric nationalisms, scientists locate earth-sized planets in relatively nearby solar systems, inspiring the imagination of artists to conceive other geographies.

On our planet, invisible geographies are increasingly mapped onto bodies. Militarized borders mark some bodies more than others, as humans move from place to place voluntarily and involuntarily. Bodies of the most vulnerable — oppressed according to hierarchies of caste, class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, politics, ability, education, and age — are often rendered invisible or inaudible within the dominant geographies of the most powerful.

Invisible geographies are places of suffering and possibility, of entrapment and flight. They invite us to reconsider our relationship with our environment and our coinhabitants. Artists imagine geographies of other possibilities, speculating not about futures of fascism but futures of emancipation. They reclaim spaces and histories of occupied lands, dispossessed communities, exploited resources, and razed cities whose archaeologies now lie beneath urban parks and rural forests in settler colonies.

For FLEFF’s twentieth edition, the Invisible Geographies exhibition brings together twenty projects that range from indigenous media to online guides to interactive documentaries. Collectively, they make visible some of the geographies that have been rendered invisible over centuries of genocide, dispossession, colonialism, imperialism, neoliberalism, and other forces of effacement and oppression. The projects explore individual labor and collective work and the automated functions that can make geographies appear or disappear.

Invisible geographies unfold in distributed networks that facilitate communication and interaction among people in distant places. They emerge from undersea internet cables that bring connectivity between continents. They merge the material and the imaginary.

Not all communities whose geographies are invisible want to be visible, since visibility and legibility to outsiders often came with dispossession. Indeed, many indigenous and informal geographies have been claimed strategically as part of larger national and international histories. Projects in the exhibition foreground the Kwakwaka’wakw (also known as Kwakiutl) and other First Nations in Canada; Palestinians in Israel and occupied Palestine; Gullah (also known as Geechees) and other African American communities in the United States; Ticuna in Brazil, Colombia, and Perú; the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe in the United States.

Just such an example is Dorit Naaman’s project Jerusalem, We Are Here, an ongoing project to remap of the international city of Jerusalem (Al-Quds in Arabic). The project takes the form of a platform that allows users to move through neighborhoods, past and present. Users explore the geographies of a city whose many ethnicities, religions, and cultures have been partly erased and severely diminished — none more than the indigenous Palestinians.

Other projects in the exhibition also engage in recovery of the past and reinterpretation of the present through indigenous geographies that colonizers have attempted to erase. Angelo Baca’s Shash Jaa’ (Bears Ears) documents the political coalition by five tribal nations to have Bears Ears proclaimed a U.S. national monument. Although they succeeded under former U.S. President Barack Obama in October 2016, the Bears Ears National Monument is now threatened only one year later in an unprecedented move to roll back protections for mining and drilling under the current president.

Paola Lamprea Cardona and Gustavo de la Hoz’s Gueê documents the lives of Ticuna women, who mobilize ancestral strength to navigate between indigenous and acquired knowledge and locate a place for women within contemporary political structures in Latin America. Sarah Shamash’s Kwanxwala-Thunder recovers the history of the Kwakwaka’wakw and stitches it together with contemporary stories of football and potlach in Canada.

The South Carolina African American Heritage Commission’s online travel guide The Green Book of South Carolina recovers African American histories that are at risk of being lost and evokes the terror faced by African Americans who wanted or needed to travel on U.S. roadways in past decades as a means to understand why movements like Black Lives Matter are so urgent today.

The exhibit also looks at gentrification, which renders historical geographies invisible. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project attempts to combat the dispossession of communities to gentrification projects in the Silicon Valley by visualizing data, aggregating narratives, and mobilizing resistance to eviction-friendly platforms like Airbnb. Comparably, the Mediterranean port of Marseille is being transformed from a racially/ethnically, religiously, and nationally diverse center of trade into a whitewashed tourist attraction. Nonetheless, traces of the past emerge, as Philip Cartelli details in Promenade. Similarly, Steve Wetzel’s Aquarius the Waterman makes visible the geographies that humans negotiate through economic shifts in commodity markets for iron-ore within the environmental devastation of the Erzberg open-pit mine in Austria.

Making large-scale problems legible is another function of invisible geographies. Often framed by political fundamentalists as elements of national security—whether against economic refugees or potential terrorists, whether to secure food, energy, or profit—phenomena as disparate as border walls and oil wells are part of larger systems of regulation, exploitation, and oppression. Moreover, they have consequences that affect us all. Carbon emissions, for example, do not stay discreetly on one side of a militarized border.

Misrepresented by alarmists as both new and threatening, transborder migrations are often part of invisible geographies that have existed for centuries. Mexican migrants into the United States often remark in reference to the U.S. annexation of half of Mexican territory, that they didn’t cross the border, rather, the border crossed them. Armando Minjarez Monarrez’s Ulysses: New Hope in the Heartland (AlieNation) documents the economic recovery of a village in so-called heartland of the United States due to the ingenuity and innovation of its Mexican and Mexican American residents.

Ellie Beaudry’s Past, Present, Future Bund makes visible and visceral the waxing and waning of air pollution in Shanghai. By dividing the screen into three fields, she shows how some residents and tourists use financial resources to help them adapt to differing air qualities, whereas others must simply carry on. Garrett Lynch and Frédérique Santune’s Best of Luck with the Wall (variant) allows users to move along the geopolitical border between México and the United States at a speed equivalent to driving in an automobile.

Luke Munn’s Null Island explores how movement through our world is increasingly dependent on environments that exist partly as computer code — and what happens when connections between virtual and physical worlds breaks down. The project focuses attention on invisible manifestations of power by rendering their effects visible in an absurdist yet disquieting manner by highlighting a tiny island that exists only in GPS systems.

With NEO-LONDON, The Unstitute (Marianna and Daniel O’Reilly) speculates on a possible future in which the city of London in the United Kingdom has collapsed. The project allows users to navigate an archive that maps according to psychological coordinates rather than physical ones, in order to locate causes for an increasingly probable future.

Other projects examine human modifications to our environment in ways that are different from the familiar built environments of cities, canals, dams, walls, and seawalls. Adam Fish, Bradley Garrett, and Oliver Case’s Points of Presence documents the invisible geographies of submarine and subterranean internet cables and the human labor that makes wireless function. In Escaped Exotics Vol 1, Rachel Johnson investigates the jequirity vine as more than a mere invasive plant species from South Asia. The plant’s poisonous seeds have been appropriated in the global pantropical belt into various beliefs and traditions.

Other projects look at smaller geographies that are often invisible to many. Naz Shahrokh’s On the Road resituates the ethos of the road trip from the context of the United States during the 1950s into an examination of the United Arab Emirates today. Toby Tatum’s The Toby Tatum Guide to Grottoes and Groves looks at the wooded world in coastal towns in the United Kingdom. Like Abu Dhabi in Shahrokh’s project, Hastings is a popular tourist destination for its beaches, so many of its visitors miss its groves.

Gerda Cammaer, Phillip Rubery, and Max Schleser’s Viewfinders is a platform that offers users the opportunity to compare their own views of the world with those of others by uploading a short tracking shot to a database where it will be edited together with tracking shots by others. The resulting videos investigate how mobile devices shape our perceptions of the world by juxtaposing points of convergence and divergence in understandings of what constitutes a “view” of the world.

Some projects look backward to causes; others look forward to solutions. Nicole Defranc and Katrine Skipper’s The Black Gold – A Web Documentary allows users to investigate the how Norway might continue to maintain its economic wealth based on oil without sacrificing its environmental future. Liz Miller’s The Shore Line allows users to navigate the effects of climate change on coastal communities around the globe. Users gain insights into ways that local populations who are most vulnerable, confront global problems.

The projects emerge from collaborations between artists, scientists, historians, activists, and coders that might also seem invisible,  suggesting ways to advocate for change through digital technologies. Significantly, several of the projects were conceived and produced by students, in both undergraduate and graduate programs. Collectively, the participants in the exhibition chart geographies that foreground the interrelationships between human and nonhuman worlds.

Invisible Geographies is curated by Dale Hudson (New York University Abu Dhabi) with the assistance of Claudia Pederson (Wichita State University).