Aug 30 2019

Drawing Lines in the Sand

by Nathan Geyer

JOHN GERRARD, Exercise (Dunhuang) 2014, 2014, simulation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

*This essay by Nathan Geyer won third place in ArtAsiaPacific’s second annual Young Writers Contest. Read Rosanna Lee’s second-place entry here and Harry C. H. Choi’s first-place entry in Issue 115.

In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “On Exactitude in Science” (1946), a map is drawn so large and exact that it covers the entire territory of an unnamed empire at a scale of one to one. Years later, only its “tattered ruins” survive, lost in the desert. Writing in the 1980s, the French theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the rise of simulacra was disrupting our ability to discern the territory from the map, fact from fiction. Inverting Borges’ fable, Baudrillard suggested that, in fact, “it is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts.” It is the ostensible neutrality and objectivity of cartography that belies its power, the ability to define concrete territories, borders, and networks. By targeting users to channelled paths of information, those who map our digital realm condition the behavior and actions of individuals both in and outside of cyberspace. Today, in a time of smart technology and post-truth politics, simulations coalesce with reality like never before. 

In recent years, a number of artists have entered Baudrillard’s metaphorical “desert of the real,” exploring the hostile no man’s land between reality and simulation. Building upon the relationship between form and the environment developed in the land art of the 1960s and ’70s, the Irish artist John Gerrard has explored the underrecognized entanglement of technology and the natural landscape in our contemporary world. In Dunhuang, Gansu province, far from any sign of human life in the Gobi Desert, a rectangular zone of geometric paths criss-crosses like a tangle of abandoned backstreets. These lines have a sharp, almost graphic flatness when seen in satellite photographs; at ground level, this legibility is lost, as the paths seem to meander across the sloping rise and fall of the terrain. In Exercise (Dunhuang) 2014 (2014), Gerrard constructed a digital simulation of this network of paths split across three screens, depicting the bird’s-eye view of a satellite; an orbiting drone-camera; and the first-person perspective of a figure on the ground, a scene commonly seen in videogames. Over the course of about 36 hours, a group of avatars drift along the maze-like tracks, each individual route determined by the very same pathfinding algorithm that powers Google Maps. 

When they were discovered in public satellite images in 2011, the mysterious purpose of the markings caused a viral sensation online. Though some initially believed these markings to be fake, superimposed onto Google Earth by hackers, researchers have suggested that they were designed to simulate city grids in order to calibrate satellite-targeted missiles. Alongside these labyrinthine circuits, internet users also discovered another set of markings in the desert around Hami, Xinjiang province. A series of gigantic characters spell out Maoist slogans, pale silhouettes against the dark desert floor. Carved out of the earth in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in 1968, the markings were designed as navigation guides for pilots at a nearby military airbase, as if foreshadowing those that would later follow in Dunhuang.

JU ANQI, Big Characters, 2015, still from two-channel HD video: 17 min 10 sec. Courtesy the artist.

In Ju Anqi’s film Big Characters (2015), drone footage of these monumental slogans is woven into a montage of the seismic wave of protests that took place around the world in 1968. While these markings in Hami were etched into the gritty surface of the desert in the very same way as those in Dunhuang, they trace two very different moments in the relation between politics and the landscape, from a time of revolutionary idols—of literal “big characters”—to a new age of digital surveillance. 

Politics also leaves traces in the landscape in a far less literal sense, in the indelible impact of human activity upon climatic and environmental conditions. The writer and researcher Eyal Weizman has compared the surface of the desert to a photograph, marked with lasting impressions of ecological forces and human inhabitation, just as film becomes exposed by light. In Desert Bloom (2011), a series of aerial photographs by Fazal Sheikh, it is possible to decode a language of traces in the Negev (al-Naqab) desert, from the remnants of abandoned homesteads to the gridded banks of earthworks prepared for tree plantations, marked like thumbprints in the sand. Soon after the founding of Israel in 1948, the state’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion declared that he would “make the desert bloom,” implementing an intensive irrigation network to transform the barren plains of the Negev into arable land, requisitioning territory from Bedouin communities while denying their existence. Though Bedouin villages are not marked on official maps, Sheikh’s photographs preserve vestiges of their existence out in the desert, defiantly asserting the possibility of return.

FAZAL SHEIKH, Desert Bloom – LATITUDE: 31°21‚7”N / LONGITUDE: 34°46‚27”E, 2011, pigment print, 53 × 72 cm. Courtesy the artist.

The idea of a desert in bloom encapsulates what Baudrillard described as the “imperialism” of simulation, an inversion of the natural order in which “the territory no longer precedes the map.” Ben-Gurion’s ecological fantasy of a forest in the desert has become a reality, but at the risk of Bedouin existence in the Negev. In a similar interventionist process, in 1978 the Chinese government began constructing the so-called Great Green Wall—a 4,500-kilometer-long forest barrier that is hoped to hold back the expansion of the Gobi Desert into Chinese territory, suppressing its destructive force. While the frequency of sandstorms in China’s cities has begun to decrease, many farmers in China’s border regions—mostly from minority groups—have already been forcibly displaced to make way for plantations. Moreover, some are concerned these trees will not survive in such arid environments and could threaten to exhaust natural groundwater.

Desertification poses one of the greatest threats to human security and the climate, causing drought, forced migration, and the rapid depletion of natural carbon sinks. With the politics of the desert in an ongoing state of flux, we must seek a new kind of cartography to guide us toward a sustainable future.

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