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.”


Beached Whales (and little humans)

Beached whales were regarded as significant phenomena, not because Early Modern proto-environmentalists galvanised a populist empathy for so striking and unusal a loss of life, but because beachings were a part of the folklore, seen as bad omens and associated with disasters and tragedies (BibliOdyssey)

“Three dead sperm whales washed up on a beach in Lincolnshire are believed to be from the same pod as a whale that died in Norfolk” (BBC, 2016)

File:Jan Saenredam03.jpg
Beached Wale near Beverwijk, Jan Saenredam, 1602 (Rijksmuseum)
Een Gestrande Potvis bij Beverwijk, Jacob Matham, 1602 (The British Museum)
Cagelot of Potwalvis, Cornelis van Noorde, 1764 (Royal Museums Greenwich)
Gestrande Walvis bij Berkhey, Jacob Matham (after a no-longer extant image of Hendrick Goltzius), 1598, (Metropolitan Museum of Art, see also Rijksmuseum)
Coloured version of Matham’s picture (via)
Image:  German School - Dead whale
Ein Grosser Wallfisch, Matthaus Merian the Younger, 17th century (Private Collection)
Gezicht op Scheveningen, Hendrick van Anthonissen, 1641, (Fritzwilliam Museum)
The Spermacaeti Whale brought back to Greenland Dock, 1762 (New York Library and National Maritime Museum)
Dead Whale, unknown photographer, 1919 (Private Collection)
Dead Whale, unknown photographer, 1910 (Zeeuwse Bibliotheek)


Rainwater and Law

Another story on the privatisation of the elements, but this time not of air but water. An aggressive move to punish residents in Detroit that find themselves unable to pay their water bills has has led 40,000 people to be cut off from water altogether.

Detroit’s water wars are connected to the larger fight over controversial reforms implemented in the wake of the city’s 2013 bankruptcy. In addition to slashing pensions and privatizing several key municipal services, the city’s bankruptcy plan handed control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to a new regional authority run by unelected officials. As part of this reorganization, DWSD has intensified efforts to collect debts, announcing in March 2014 that it would shut off water services to 1,500 to 3,000 customers each week if their bills remained unpaid.

Inhabitant are consequently forced to become very creative to deal with the negative consequences of this denial to water access.

Depriving people from an elemental right is of course a shameless act. However, what I did not know is that collecting rainwater is considered to be illegal in some US states. Russia Today ran a story a while ago about a legal case of a man in Colorado who was convicted for collecting rain water. The reasoning of the court is interesting because it invoked very old questions over the ownership of the sky, a subject that preoccupies much of my research at the moment.

Authorities say that Harrington broke the law by collecting natural rain water and snow runoff that landed on his property. Officials with the Medford Water Commission contested that the water on Harrington’s property, whether or not it came from the sky, was considered a tributary of nearby Crowfoot Creek and thus subject to a 1925 law that gives the MWC full ownership and rights.

Yoko Ono

Some interesting / funny pieces of elemental art by Yoko Ono are currently on display in Beijing at the Faurschou Foundation.

… Based on verbal or written instructions that are utopian, ephemeral and performable, Yoko Ono presents viewers with art which becomes a shared mental or physical experience.

The exhibition begins outdoor with a Wish Tree garden, planted with “Three Friends of Winter”—pine, bamboo and plum trees, symbolizing steadfastness, perseverance and resilience. Specially dedicated to the show in Beijing is Golden Ladders, another participatory concept. Here viewers are invited to bring their own gold coloured ladders of any size, shape and material to join the installation, in which 7 ladders gilded with pure gold leaf are already installed.

Yoko Ono, To see the Sky, 2015, at the MOMA

To See The Sky, a new work first exhibited earlier in 2015 at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, sends out a message that the journey to the light is accompanied by danger. Visitors who are attracted to climb up to the top of the spiral staircase will soon realize the staircase starts to get shaky, and makes it difficult to focus on gazing up at the sky. When the moment of emancipation and freedom comes, it is an enlightening experience.

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono, Air Dispenser, 1971Embedded image permalink

Yoko Ono, Air Dispenser, 1971. Photo: Iain Macmillan

We are all breathing the same air and we are all connected to the world by air (Yoko Ono)

Yoko Ono, For Half-A-Wind Show, Davis Museum Version, Davis Lisboa Mini-Museum Barcelona, 2006 and 2014

you are water
I’m water
we’re all water in diffe­rent contai­ners
that’s why it’s so easy to meet
some­day we’ll evapo­rate toge­ther
but even after the water’s gone
we’ll probably point out to the contai­ners 
and say, “that’s me there, that one.” 
we’re contai­ner minders
(Yoko Ono, We are all Water)


The Russian military has developed an interesting new device which allows soldiers to stay for up to 2 hours underwater without having to come to the surface to breathe. The fully insulated, self-recycling , or ‘closed circuit breathing apparatus (CCBA)’, contains a cartridge which regenerates exhaled carbon dioxide (CO2) into respiratory-ready oxygen (O2).

This is of course not the first of its kind, the history of so-called ‘rebreathers’ goes back a few hundred years. However, unlike conventional scuba air banks, this rebreather recycles existing materials without having to rely on the external environment. The subtitled information video below shows the working of the machine which seems to provide the wearer immunity from the normally inhospitable climate of underwater surroundings. It is interesting to see how technology is used to overcome environmental limitations by helping the body to detach itself entirely from its own ecological embeddedness.

Water on Mars

An article in today’s Guardian on NASA’s discovery of liquid water on Mars features a number of beautiful pictures of water streaks on the not-so-red-planet. What a difference the elemental makes. An accompanying article explains:

Images taken from the Mars orbit show cliffs, and the steep walls of valleys and craters, streaked with summertime flows that in the most active spots combine to form intricate fan-like patterns.

Scientists are unsure where the water comes from, but it may rise up from underground ice or salty aquifers, or condense out of the thin Martian atmosphere.

The findings of the NASA team have been published in a paper in the Nature Geoscience journal which is made available online.

Another view of water streaks flowing downhill on Mars. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Horowitz crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water.

Photograph: Mars Reconnaissance orbiter/University of Arizona/JPL/NASA

These dark, narrow, 100-metre streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue colour seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene.

Photograph: Mars Reconnaissance orbiter/University of Arizona/JPL/NASA