A DOT AND A LINE (2003)
Essay by Gaye Chan and Nandita Sharma
“The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture.” Martin Heidegger
Cartography and photography are two major forms of representing reality in the modern age. The modern cartographer maps land and sea from ‘god’s’ eye view, at once naturalizing and prioritizing seeing from a distance. The photographer with his monocular vision, inverting one-point perspective, stands at its vanishing point. ‘Detached’ and ‘neutral’, the cartographer and photographer vanish from their images, presenting views as though no one made them, or rather, were made without self-interest.
With each map and photograph, like a set of instructions, we are trained how to see: what to see and what not to see. With each map and photograph, we are more convinced of the ‘truth’ of their representation, so much so that they supplant our memory of ourselves and knowledge of others. Like the two stories of the two roads, lines get drawn across previously nonexistent boundaries, allocating difference between people, demarcating states of belonging, regulating mobilities. Through these lines, we become frozen in a particular time and space. Instead of recognizing fluidity and connectivity, our identities and lived realities come to be seen as fixed dots on one side or another of territorial claims.
Who benefits from these dots and lines? From their beginnings both cartography and photography have been inextricably linked to the globalization of capitalist colonization. The invention of the chronometer in 1761 by John Harrison, the tool that allowed for the calculation of longitudes, transformed the globe into a grid that could be claimed from afar. The “conquest of the world as picture,” noted by Heidegger, made it that much easier to ‘see’ land and people as mere raw material. While early maps were guides on how to traverse land and sea, their modern counterparts became charts for colonial expansion. John Urry points out that through the technology of photography, developed a century later, “sites became sights” to be surveyed by those with the force to claim the ‘new worlds’ captured by their lens.
Official maps and photographs have served rulers well by colonizing our imagination of land and identity. The power of these imposed boundaries relies on our collective forgetfulness that there are other ways of seeing and being. The project A Dot and A Line draws our attention to the very process of border making.
A Dot and A Line. An absurd performance, on nonsensical border making, on forgetting and remembering.
Along the walls of the gallery is an endless collection of amateur snapshots attached to blackened open folio pages from an old atlas. In every snapshot the photographer has accidentally included her/his shadow in the foreground. Vague silhouettes – here a hat, there a dress – recall the photographers’ corporeality. More clearly evident are what they wanted to remember – here a baby, there a vacation. The snapshots are paired two to each atlas page, north south, matched by seemingly nothing more than the width of the shadows at the pictures’ edge. Shapes emerge through the paired shadows, hovering darkly in the center of each image. The subjects of the paired snapshots are forced together but are always apart. Since one is always above the other the unequal terms of this union shapes all subsequent relationships between them. The two come to be mutually constitutive. The Self becomes inseparable from Other, so much so that the Othered, even in their resistance, often imitate those who rule over them and leave the necessity of lines unquestioned. In the center of the room, housed in display cases, lay the same number of pieces of paper as paired photographs on the wall. On each paper a map – here a town, there a road. Geography around the globe cut out as with a jig-saw using the paired shadow-shapes as templates. Some of the maps are of currently contested areas – borders between the First and the Third Worlds (El Paso, Texas/Juarez, Mexico), occupied territories (Israel/Palestine) and claimed states (New Zealand/Aotearoa). Others may have been once or may be again.
By superimposing an arguably meaningless system onto another system of representation, A Dot and A Line destablizes the authority of commonly accepted political, social, and cultural boundaries. It reminds us of what was not ever supposed to be seen – that every photo and every map is nothing more or less than a picture made by those with the power to shape the world in their image. Each is a repository of their aspirations and of those who accept their supposed self-evidentiary qualities. A Dot and A Line shows us that the most significant border crossing is not when we simply step over the line to be part of the other side but when we refuse to acknowledge its very legitimacy.