This is Not a Time for Dreaming

Without the [will] of manipulators and audience alike, puppets cannot sustain an illusion of life – Matthew Isaac Cohen, The Art of Puppetry

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Image result for Donald Trump at a studio in west London


The finished product will be ready at all four locations by January 20, the day on which Trump takes the oath of office and is officially sworn in as president


Sculptors use hundreds of photographs and measurements in order to gain precise dimensions for their likenesses



[P]uppetry almost inevitably involves more rather than less ego… Rolande Duprey, one of the manipulators of [Pierre Huyghe’s] This is Not a Time for Dreaming, writes… how puppeteers were requested ‘to “rehearse” certain pieces, [but] when the actual filming came about, Pierre would re-direct and re-rehearse us, changing blocking.’ Huyghe stopped the first performance of the piece before a live audience and a film camera for half an hour to work ‘with the soundman to get the sound right. This would never have happened in real theatre,’ recounted Duprey – Matthew Isaac Cohen, The Art of Puppetry

The reversibility of appearance and reality is the only means of artistic access to the real, Pirandello 


Saying it as it is, without saying it

“Next story.
The last story was of the brain. This one is of the brainless.
His name is Ronald Reagon… He was nothing, an idiocy musically coupled with an incoherence. That’s a bit unfair. He was an incipience. He was unqualified and without content… It was on the receiving end that the Reagan incipience was qualified, given content.” – Massumi, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part II , 1995
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Saying it as it is

I have been using Donald Trump a lot in my teaching this year. I use him to challenge ideas of what society deems appropriate. How society is gendered and racialised. But I also ask students to reflect on his popularity. What makes him so attractive? Is it what he says? Or is it exactly that what he does not say? How much can be said within the liberal margins without losing mass legitimacy? But also how much should be said to win national elections?

The commonly heard claim, especially echoed by his supporters, is that “he says it as it is”. This I have found hugely fascinating because Trump is known to say very little. His vocabulary deliberately seems limited to adjectives of “great”, “huge”, “bad” etc. It is exactly those words which are left out from his speech which seem to speak to the imaginations (of especially white) American voters. The French thinker Derrida but also others described absences and deficiencies as subordinate to a principle of presence.

I’m interested for the most part in what’s not happening, that area between events that could be called the gap. This gap exists in the blank and void regions or settings that we never look at. Robert Smithson, “What is a Museum?” (1967)

In other words, it is the suggestive void he leaves behind for others to fill in that constitutes the backbone of his success. Supporters enjoy the liberty to express their discontent and dissatisfaction (or, indeed, hate) in these gaps he creates. His supporters fill in the nouns and subjects of the sentences he intentionally (or unintentionally? I think not) leaves hanging. He not merely channels sentiments but craftily directs them to align with his own interest.

This is a quantitative shift in fascist rhetorical traditions, which traditionally are much more explicit in their scapegoating of minorities. Older forms of fascism thrive precisely because of persuasive reiterations and creative recapitulations in oral speech, but also in dress, rituals and even architecture. Trump is different because, although his underlying message is very similar to that of his predecessors, the packaging leaves sufficient room for the voter to decide himself/ herself how much racism, misogyny (etc.) is enough “to say it as it is.” The voter always wins because he/ she decides how these blanks are filled in. The limits of what is sayable/ permissible are defined solely by the creator of the sentence. The gaps in the sentence allow for the illusion of appropriation and control. Trump supporters enjoy the feeling of finally being heard but all that is really audible are the echoes of an earlier fascism.

As a 1980s marketeer, Trump knows full well that blanks and adjectives form the basis of all good marketing. Marketing is not about the fulfilling of needs and desires but, and market liberals and Marxist would agree on this point, about the creating of new ones. Happiness, hate and other emotions are by marketeers externally induced, but projected and imagined as if occurring naturally and independently from outside interference. The selling of ideas is not done through classical rhetoric but through the cognitive instilling of the idea of an autonomous will. Trump deliberately creates and leaves the blanks as dots for others to fill in, and then pretends to listen to his voters (or customers) as if their ideas are authentically theirs. This is how businesses operate but it is the same logic which soon will inform the foundation of a newly found American corporatism.

Lil in Sumerian Cosmology

While writing a paper on law’s attempts to  appropriate breathing in the gassing of populations (e.g. in death chambers or teargassing in streets), I came across an article on old Sumerian cosmologies of the atmosphere.

“In the eyes of the Sumerian teachers and sages, the major components of the universe in the more narrow sense of the word were heaven and earth; indeed their term for universe was an-ki, a compound word meaning “heaven-earth.” The earth was a flat disk consisting of a vast hollow space enclosed top and bottom by a solid surface in the shape of a vault. Just what this heavenly solid was thought to be is still uncertain; to judge from the fact that the Sumerian term for tin is “metal of heaven,” it may have been tin. Between heaven and earth they recognised a substance which they called lil, a word the approximate meaning of which is “wind, air, breath, spirit”; its most significant characteristics seem to be movement and expansion, and it therefore corresponds roughly to our “atmosphere.” The sun, moon, planets, and stars were taken to be made of the same stuff as the atmosphere, but endowed, in addition, with the quality of luminosity. Surrounding the “heaven-earth” on all sides, as well as top and bottom was the boundless sea in which the universe somehow remained fixed and immovable. (Samuel Noah Kramer, 1956, “Sumerian Theology and Ethics”, The Harvard Theological Review)

Enlil (En meaning “Lord”) is in the Sumerian tradition the God of breath and wind. He, because Sumerian Gods are gendered, is a primary God and was believed to be the only deity who could connect to Anu, the god of heaven and King of all the other Gods. Enlil seems to have been an attempt to deify the atmosphere and, as such, formed the medium or the glue between Anu (heavens) and Enki (The God of Earth).

As the God most involved in human affairs, Enlil is also “the source of sovereignty for all kings of the land” (Flückiger-Hawker, 1999). In gratitude for the legitimisation of their rule, “kings gave land and precious objects to the temple of Enlil” (Mason 2005).

This cosmology seems different than those commonly associated with Christianity in which coronation, the transferal of legitimacy to rule, is an unmediated relationship between a divine God and a terrestrial ruler. Enlil and the tradition of lil more generally seems to indicate a mediation between Heaven and Earth which starts from the premise of respiration. Breathing, or lil, is i this tradition not something that should be reduced to the biological (what we could call today oxygen) but carries in it the divine seeds from the heaven.

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.”

Kasia Molga, Breathing Invisible Dust

Kasia Molga is a media artist who recently teamed-up with air pollution scientist Professor Frank Kelly  (and colleagues from King’s College London). Their collaborative project entitled “The Human Sensor” comprises a set of illuminated clothing that is “worn by performers to reveal changes in urban air pollution.” From the website of the Invisible Dust project which helped realise the collaboration :

Molga has designed the clothing so that it changes colours with variations of air pollutant gases. For example as PM10 increases the colour of the costume may become red. The air pollution measurements are taken a few hours before by the scientists. This data is then fed into the wearables so that the colours reveal the air pollution that you are breathing in on the street you are walking along. The performers mask also detects the performers breathing in real time so that the colours fade in and out with the performers breathing rhythms. (Invisible Dust)

The idea of making the invisible (particles) visible is something that I have tried to do in a recent publication (entitled: “breathing materialities“). Much of what academics write, however, remains contained within the narrow realm of the University. The artist has arguably much more power to visualise and politicise the effects of particle pollution.

The big challenge we have is that air pollution is mostly invisible. Art helps to makes it visible. We are trying to bring air pollution into the public realm. Scientific papers in journals work on one level, but this is a way to bring it into the street where the public is (King’s College senior air quality analyst, Andrew Grieve in the Guardian)

Making the abstraction of air concrete is for more than one reason a political project. It should be remembered that around 7 million people die prematurely each year from toxic pollution. That number is likely to rise rather than fall in the future. The vast majority of these deaths primarily come from urban centres in “developing” countries, especially India and China are known to suffer. To know what one breathes is perhaps an even more fundamental issue than knowing what one eats. And yet, few of us have an idea of the materialities that sustain and damage our bodies every second of the day. Being able to measure the toxicity of the air should be a human right, I think.


One of the objectives of the Invisible Dust project is to make particle pollution visible through the means of technology and art. Molga explains the motivations for her Human Sensor project:

I started thinking about the fact that because of the rising temperatures and also rising populations, especially in urban environments, things are happening, which we can’t see, but they will of course affect our bodies very drastically … It’s not just a display of the air quality, but it’s about also displaying something so invisible and ephemeral and very important for us to be alive as human breathing (in Hartford Courant).

The idea of caring for the breath by making it visible and felt is something that French feminist Luce Irigaray has propagated already some time ago in her wonderful book Forgetting of the Air. I am currently working on a chapter in an edited volume of the Slovenian thinker Lenart Skof and the philosopher Petri Berndtson. The book brings together geographers, philosophers, medical practitioners and artists and is, similar to the Invisible Dust project, a good example of how different disciplines converge on the subject (and practise) of breathing. Although I have intermittently been working on the breath for a couple of years now, it remains (and will always be) fascinating to see how something so simple can be so utterly complicated and beautiful. Inspirational, if you pardon the pun

Of course, the Invisible Dust project is not the first cross-disciplinary project on breathing and atmospheric materiality. Last year academics and artists came together for the launch of the wonderful Life of Breath project. I did not visit the event but the website gives you an idea of the wealth of creativity and originality of the contributions.

South China Sea

Some time ago I finished writing a chapter on sand, deserts and anthropogenic islands for an edited volume on the materiality of territory. One of my case studies were the human-made islands in the South China Sea, so you can imagine that the news today struck a chord. The decision of the court in The Hague to grant the Philippines its territorial rights is unsurprising (see Guardian article for background). Chinese lawyers and anyone familiar with the case had expected as much. Of course, as already pointed out, this has major consequences for domestic Chinese politics. What is more interesting, for me at least, is the geography of the court’s decision.

International law distinguishes between rocks, reefs and islands. This means that these geophysical entities are considered and treated as legal ones. That raises a couple of issues whose importance goes beyond the South China Sea dispute. The definitional one is the most striking because it is uncertain whether there is a quantitative or qualitative difference in these entities. What makes a rock different than a reef? The fact that the geology of the “earth” (a very problematic concept by and of itself) moves, changes, enlarges (etc.) over time poses serious difficulties for law. Climate change is an additional factor to be considered. The second, but equally interesting, issue relates to the attempt to appropriate “natural” phenomena for the purpose of law. A rock is not the same as “land”. The first relates to a materiality while the second relates to a mental abstraction.

The court’s decision seemed to have refuted the Chinese argument that the self-made islands are “territorial”. In other words, these geophysical features are not judged to hold a legal title. I still have to go through the details of the decision but it is clear that this could have important ramifications on how law will deal with the materiality of the world. China has already refuted the decision, arguing that it has “no legal basis.” It is likely that any future developments after this outcome will have to involve a much greater role for social and material geographers.

See also this BBC overview on some of the geo-legal issues at stake: