Bouchra Khalili’s Elemental Mapping

Bouchra Khalili is a talented and politically engaged Moroccan-French video artist who currently has an exhibition at the MOMA in New York. A former student of mine alerted me of her Mapping Journey Project because it touches upon a variety of things and topics we discussed in our Political Geography lectures. The project, which involves video footage taken from 2008 to 2011,

 details the stories of eight individuals who have been forced by political and economic circumstances to travel illegally and whose covert journeys have taken them throughout the Mediterranean basin… The stories are presented on individual screens positioned throughout MoMA… Shown together, the videos function as an alternative geopolitical map defined by the precarious lives of stateless people.  (MOMA)

The cartographic remapping is interesting but what I found even more fascinating is the way Khalili uses the elements as a critique. I am not the first one to have noticed how her respondents redraw state lines but also renegotiate their relationship with earth and water. One astute critic, Quinn Latimer, observes in a creative paper on the exhibition:

The ideological language and geopolitical narrative in which Khalili’s subjects are cast by Western… politicians and in media stories of illegal migration and mass displacement is most often “channeled” through metaphors of water. In any politician’s speech on a given day, in any nationalist’s, in any American or European newspaper screed, hear or read of the “floods” of refugees “swamping” some state and its “porous” border. See that border’s ‘floodgates’ suddenly open, suddenly shut.. Khalili’s subjects are not a tide, not a flood, not some soaked lexicon. They are individuals with voices and bodies, through which their desire, fear, ambition, anxiety, vulnerability, strength, and autonomy is related. Hear them as they plainly describe, watch as they precisely trace their impossible journeys across our shared map.

What interests me here are the politicised elemental metaphors. The way that the relationship between the refugees and the water of the sea is conceptualised as a biblical force (“flood”, “floodgates”)  threatening to breach through the “porous” border of a virgin and fertile Europe. But also how the refugees long for the stability, fixity and reliability of the soil underneath. Soil to grow ambitions and prosper. Khalili allows this elemental struggle to take place on the map. Questions of race, gender, class are all played-out through the elements as metaphors but also as experience. They provide us with a narrative from which identities and histories are produced.

Khalili spoke about another video project in 2010 which she presented as part of a larger Iniva art collaboration with the appropriate title “Whose Map is it? new mapping by artists.”

Trees with Roots, without Ground

Descartes… observed: “Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree: the roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches that issue from the trunk are all the other sciences . . .”

In what soil do the roots of the tree of philosophy have their hold? Out of what ground do the roots-and through them the whole tree-receive their nourishing juices and strength? What element, concealed in the ground, enters and lives in the roots that support and nourish the tree? What is the basis and element of metaphysics? What is metaphysics, viewed from its ground? What is metaphysics itself, at bottom? (Heidegger, “Existence and Being“, 1949)

Tree fighting the erosion of soil in Olympic National Park (Port Angeles, WA)
Tree fighting erosion in the Nature Institute (Godfrey, IL)

” Where We See Tangled Trees, He Sees Social Networks.”

Peter Wohlleben‘s Das geheime Leben der Bäume [The Hidden Life of Trees] is a best-seller in Germany, where the book already sold over 300.000 copies. The English translation is only available in pre-order at the moment (Amazon). Wohlleben’s intentional anthropomorphic reading of the life of trees (not to be confused with Adam Thorpe’s recent Secret Life of Trees) describes how trees are ecologically and socially connected with one another. A walk in the park will never be the same upon realising that trees are not ‘organic robots’ producing oxygen for humans, but actually feel and communicate with each other, forming and constituting distinctive societies of trees. A lot of this echoes the words of Michael Marder who in a recent editorial for AlJazeera writes:

Far from photosynthesising “green machines”, plants are the agents in their milieu, pursuing their optimal development, or, in other words, seeking a good of their own. It is up to ethical thought to catch up with the recent scientific findings about the plants’ responses to damaging stimuli, active search for nourishment and avoidance of danger (Marder on Al Jazeera)

Patterns of connecting, linking and communicating commence already in the photosynthetic phase, as Wohlleben explains in a TV interview with German television.

Trees in their photosynthetic phase [ie. the period they convert light energy into chemical energy, producing fuel for growth] -synchronise with one anther, meaning that the stronger don’t produce more than the weaker trees, all give to the roots, something like a form of communism, but this form actually works for trees (Wohlleben on 3SAT, translated from German)

These trees are friends. You see how the thick branches point away from each other? That’s so they don’t block their buddy’s light (Wohlleben in New York Times)

The English translation is planned to go on sale in September this year. I have little doubt that it will be a success.

* The title of this post is taken from the printed version of the interview with Wohlleben in the NYT

Jenny Perlin’s One Hundred Sinkholes

(“Installation view, 100 Sinkholes’, Jenny Perlin, from:

Jenny Perlin is another talented artist whose recent work focuses on the phenomenon of sink holes. The project entitled One Hundred Sinkholes was showcased in New York (2015) and Berlin (2014). Most of Perlin’s work, also this one, is shot on 16mm film.

In her sink hole project she “takes the increasing global phenomenon of sinkholes as a point of departure; mining the sudden collapse of the earth’s surface as a metaphor for unexpected gaps, cognitive failures and chance detours” (Simon Preston Gallery). Sink holes seem to be presented here as ‘events’ in the philosophical meaning of the word. Following Whitehead, they are encounters with the world.

Universal history is the history of contingencies, and not of necessity. Ruptures and limits, and not continuity. For great accidents were necessary, and amazing encounters that could have happened elsewhere, or before, or might never have happened (Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, 2004: 154)

We discern some specific character of an event. But in discerning an event we are also aware of its significance as a relatum in the structure of events… The most simple expression of the properties of this structure are to be found in the our spatial and temporal relations. A discerned event is known as related in this structure to other events whose specific characters are otherwise not disclosed in that immediate awareness expect so far as they are relata within the structure (Whitehead in The Concept of Nature, 2004: 52)

Sink holes constitute however a particular set of events. They seem to be different than other events because they present themselves as groundless voids. They reveal as much as suspend familiar relations to time and space. They present themselves as empty and void, deficient of both time and space. They are the more-than-symbolic reminders of the emotional and intellectual difficulties we face when trying to understand the contingency and fluidity of reality. Cora Diamond, commenting on Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Six Young Men‘, describes this as the “Difficulty of Reality”:

What interests me… is the experience of the mind’s not being able to encompass something which it encounters (Diamond “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy”, link to book chapter)

What is intriguing about Perlin’s project is that she actually tries to make sense of these holes by filling them up with geometry and colour.

Forming the preface of the show, Perlin methodically and systematically catalogues one hundred individual sinkholes, sourced from online data. Undermining their monumental scale, each sinkhole is reproduced as a small work on paper, abstracted into geometric line and color. In addition, a 16mm film titled 100 Sinkholes renders the same images in graphite, each insistently filling the emptiness of the void. As a sinkhole emerges, it quickly disappears into the unsteady rhythm of the animation. An accompanying film titled Inks, rendered in black marker, ferociously loops, gradually destroying the film in the process (Simon Preston Gallery)

She has made the video available for online viewing

To be continued

Heide Fasnacht ‘Suspect Terrain’

Heide Fasnacht is an American sculpting artist working on the aesthetic representation of natural and man-made disasters. Her interest in sink holes got the attention of my research student who, in her turn, informed me about her work.

Fasnacht in an interview states:

My interest in sinkholes was precipitated by the destruction of buildings and art through various means, such as weather, war, and iconoclasm, and I decided to start looking at the aftermath of those events…  I am interested in shaky structures, such as the economy, cultures, and architecture, and their transformation into materials of transitional states, like collapse.

I particularly appreciate the way she compares social structures such as the economy and culture with environmental  ones. They both seem deceivingly stable and solid but are intrinsically prone to implosion and catastrophe. Her latest project has a fascinating title, Suspect Terrain, which I hope to explore in more detail for and in my talk at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) later this year. The venue of the artwork explains that it “details the creation and aftermath of a sinkhole.”

The title references John McPhee’s In Suspect Terrain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition, 1983), which offers a narrative of the earth through the geological lens of plate tectonics (Socrates Sculpture Park)

Heide Fasnacht(Taken from:

I found a short interview with her talking about the project.

There are several, or maybe even a lot of things that draw my attention here. The work is conceptually very rich! The integration of the house and the reference to dwelling and memories immediately reminded me of Heidegger’s attention to the concept of home as a place of dwelling.

A house can easily be a metaphor for the self (from the video)


However, where Heidegger talks about the need to retain an essence of home, Fasnacht is more than happy to await the construction which comes after the destruction. This dialogue between ideas of permanency (being) and change (becoming) is retold by her story of the sad man and the playing children in the background who climb over and re-claim the sculpture to make it their own new playground.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a lot of Fasnacht’s ideas derive from architectural thought. She cites both Koolhaas’ work and Venturi Learning from Las Vegas as sources of influence.

To be continued


Shenzhen Landslide (cont.)

Some more news on the landslide in Shenzhen. A Xinhua report notes that the landslide has covered an area of 380,000 square metres to a depth of 10 metres, giving a volume of 3.8 million cubic metres. According to landslide experts “this is an unusually large man-made slide.

A BBC report writes that the question of responsibility is currently the subject of political debate.

China’s land and resources ministry said in a statement on its website that initial investigations showed the landslide happened when a huge mound of soil, cement chunks and other construction waste became unstable  (BBC)

A local interviewee challenges the idea and notes that natural causes cannot be blamed.

This was not a natural disaster, this was man made (BBC)

The International Business Times reports on commentaries from residents who argue that the Hongao Construction Waste Dump had built up for nearly two years and stood at nearly 20 stories high when it collapsed. Fears of the anthropocentric nature of the slide were confirmed by a team of geological hazard experts that reached similar conclusions.

The experts found that at the dumping ground for construction waste “the accumulation was large and too steep, causing a loss of stability and then collapse that led to the toppling of many buildings,” the report said. “The collapsed entity was a man-made pile, and the original hill did not slide,” it added (NYT)

Shenzhen has almost been built overnight. I first visited the town in early 2016 and was taken back by the development of vertical and horizontal infrastructure and architecture. I am not sure how much geological research went into investigating whether or not the soil could foster a 10+ million city. Shenzhen was an experiment of the early 1990s, a first attempt to open the economy up in a restricted zone, it is unlikely that anybody expected it to become the megapole it is today. The district where the slide occurred, Guangming New District, was only recently the place of agricultural fields.

A before and after picture from the BBC of the extent of the landslide shows how a mountain of dirt and debris collapses into a landslide, moving from the quarry on top of the hill to the industrial park underneath.

Extent of landslide in Shenzhen

An expert on landslides at the University of East Anglia has a couple of fascinating satellite images of the quarry on the top of the hill. It immediately becomes clear that only two years ago “the site was an abandoned, flooded quarry with no haul roads and no waste… This was quite literally a disaster waiting to happen, and there can be no excuse for this.”

The Shenzhen, Guangdong landslide in China on 25 November 2013. Image via Google Earth.

Guangdong landslide

Shenzhen Landslide

No matter how firm the ground, it is always possible to see the gasping abyss that corresponds to it (Sloterdijk in Neither Sun nor Death, 2001: 244)

I have started work for my talk for the upcoming annual Association of American Geographer’s (AAG) convention in San Francisco next year. Well to be honest, most of the work has thus far has been done by my new research assistant.

The focus of my paper, if I manage to write one, will be on landslides and sinkholes. These events of geological liquidity  seem to feature more frequently in the news and I want to investigate why that is the case. I suspect that it has little to do with the geological make-up of the earth and more to do with underlying social factors. I am also interested in popular imaginations surrounding the phenomenon. The sinking of the earth is a favourite topic in Hollywood movie, I hope to understand why that is.

The last instance of a landslide that featured in the news was the one yesterday in Shenzhen, once a small fishing village, now one of the largest cities in China/ the world. The slide buried fourteen factories, 13 low-rise buildings and three dormitories. National news coverage speaks about 91 missing people, while the number of missing had earlier been put at 59 (Guardian).

Below some video footage of the slide.