Why geography?

As I continue talking to people for the project, I am asked one question again and again: why geography? In other words, why would a geographer (rather than, I guess, someone in art history, art theory, politics or war studies) be doing this?

A long answer to this question will be found in the book I am working on and which I aim to have drafted by the end of 2012. Here is a shorter version that hints at a few of the thoughts I’ll be developing and explains why a geographer is interested in art and war.

The project can be situated between political geography and cultural geography. If political geography conventionally studies struggles over space, matters of territory and geopolitics, then cultural geography is often thought of as the study of the meanings, representations and ways of seeing surrounding landscape and place. If we wish, we can see these two sets of dynamics crystallised in artists’ responses to war.

There are many conceptual and theoretical sub-plots that could be pursued here, but each of the examples I have posted or written about on the blog speaks in some way to the connections between the political, the cultural and the spatial, whether it is a painting of military aircraft in flight over a foreign country, an attempt to represent the destruction of a city, a meditation on the location of the war zone or an attempt to re-invent the map of a country using food. Other interventions include the touring and exhibition in public space of something that was never meant to be there, relocating a protest site that had been banned from political space or proposing a memorial to war dead that can be seen every day, almost anywhere in public or private space.

Of course, I am by no means the first to spot these kinds of connections or to adopt a spatial perspective as an analytical strategy. As the eminent literary theorist and cultural and political critic Edward Said wrote in chapter one of his influential book Culture and Imperialism:

     “What I have tried to do is a kind of geographical inquiry into historical experience, and I have kept in mind the idea that the earth is in effect one world, in which empty, uninhabited spaces virtually do not exist. Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free of the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons, but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.”

Other theorists of art have also been pursuing similar spatial threads. As Jacques Rancière, one of the most influential and oft-cited figures in art theory in recent times has written:

“Discussions on contemporary art are not about the comparative value of works. They are all about matters of spatialization: about having video monitors standing in for sculptures or motley collections of items scattered on the floor instead of having paintings hanging on the wall. …This discussion deals with distributions of things on a wall or on a floor, in a frame or on a screen. It deals with the sense of the common that is at stake in those shifts between one spatial setting and another, or between presence and absence.”

These are just two signs of how many theorists across a variety of disciplines have turned towards space (one of the specialisms of academic geography) as a way of investigating and thinking about things. As a geographer, the common denominator I see in many artists’ responses to the Iraq war is their engagement with space both at an abstract level in terms of concepts like territory, landscape, city or home, and with a whole range of actual places, from homes to public squares, from galleries to museums, protest marches to regimental barracks, from the war zone to the home front.

One reason this is interesting, I think, is that because despite the vast differences in how war affects people, the experience of space and of being in place is a kind of existential common denominator. Everyone and everything has to be somewhere, and that somewhere is part of the being. A focus on space can be a way of tracing the connections between things that might seem to be disparate, of working out how some things are made to fit into the world and others are cut violently out of it.

My hope is that tracing these connections, and the processes of fitting in and cutting out, across a range of art works made by people with different stories, perspectives and ways of working might put us in a better position to re-imagine the world, to see it differently or at least understand it a bit better.


One thought on “Why geography?

  1. Pingback: Vancouver as the centre of the world « geographical imaginations

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