Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dance the map

So the concept of a modern performative cartography has been much on my mind. Mulling over analogies, I am thinking about:

Gaming: my favorite example of maps functioning fully as fiction. Just as we use cartographic maps as a framework on which to find our way around the real world, gaming maps form a structure for fictional play. But the cartography itself tends to be pretty conventional. The idea is to provide a setting within which gamers can comfortably play.

Theater: Theater actually works pretty well as an analogy for how cartography functions today. There is an artificial representation of setting, which is as detailed as the performance needs to support it. But the problem here is that in the conventional theater setting, performance is distinctly separate from setting. A stage set can be said to “overwhelm” a performance if it dominates, which it should not. This means that voice as an element of setting (or by analogy, of the map) is just not part of the basic conventions.

Performance: In terms of formal structure, the art world has a lot of potential. I and a group of NACIS folk spent a day with Steven Holloway out on Clark Fork in Missoula, and then back in the U of MT printmaking studio pulling monoprints (which was absolutely wonderful; made me want to get back into the print studio. more later on the workshop). Here’s my problem with the artworld as a whole: it feels quite disconnected with how most of the world lives. It’s a little like quietist tendencies in anabaptist circles: if the world won’t be with us, then we will be our own world. What art cartographies I’ve seen have been like dada commentary: pointing to the inherent absurdities of our relationship to earth and place. An important role, yes, but I am interested in insider as well as outsider perspectives. I want to see performative cartography as integral to a place.

Dance: There isn’t a lot of place-dance, which seems weird to me. Formal performance dance (modern, ballet, etc) are relentlessly placeless, formed instead around choreographers and performers who could dance their specific dance in any theater.

There are some extremely place-related ritual dance traditions in older cultures. I think of the 'Obby ‘Oss of Padstow, Cornwall, or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. I’ve danced in American renditions of the dance form, and in one case (dancing Abbots Bromley at the Renaissance Festival in Minnesota) it really takes on the feeling of “blessing the place,” as I’ve heard that particular dance called. But the funny thing is, while a pattern has been set of regular performance (annually in all three examples above), there is nothing inherent in the dance that says it must be performed in that specific place. It may be more special or meaningful, but formally, ritual dance is as transferable as modern and ballet dance.

But again, it feels like dance ought to be a good place to start. Dance is so inherently spatial. It is fundamentally about attention paid and patterning formed in space.

Processionals: Parades ought to be place-based. They are in the same place every year, they are often organized for and of the community. But at least the ones I’ve been in are resiliently not about place. In Minnesota, the “royalty” of every little town goes and drives down main street of every other little town on the back of a float. Bands from all over come and march through, various Shriners groups do their thing... it’s fun, but it all ends up kind of generic. And it is certainly never about the space it passes through.

On the other hand, Catholic processions in Mediterranean and Latin American cultures are very specific, as they are tied to specific relics. There are formally similar processions in India (Ratha Yatra with its Jagganath carts, for example), and in Japan. And then there’s the Hajj.

Pilgrimage: The Hajj. Yep, I think we have at least one winner as a model for a performative cartography. Pilgrimages take place over long distances, and their routes are repeated so often and by so many, they become marks on the earth themselves.

Pilgrimage is not a modern idea, and while most of us make pilgrimages of one sort or another, They are rarely approached as such. The annual trip to grandma’s, with stops at that specific scenic overlook or that gas station. Some other momentous trip to a place of reverence (I’m visualizing a trip to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington). And there are individual traverses: the Appalachian Trail, biking across America...

Interestingly, the most compelling way of talking about pilgrimage in modern culture is not cartography but text, or film. It is through a voiced narrative that we understand this specific narrative. I remember a riveting slide presentation by someone going on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The setting clearly was important, but it was the total experience, personal social and environmental, that made it compelling.


Cartography separates space from experience, the same way theater separates stage set from performance. I think maybe we need to invent some sort of hybrid form that gives up the conventions of cartography, or anyway a lot of them, to allow for a real performative cartography.

One mode of thinking about this may be to turn the map inside out. Instead of attempting to dance a performance on a published map, make cartographic thinking part of a performance in the real world. The phrase “dance the map” comes to mind. Like processions to mark the parish bounds, perform out the lines we draw.

Over and out for now.

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