‘Kartografi’: The testing of our boundaries

‘Like linguistics, cartography is a territory of subfields, themes, technologies, processes and imperial cul-de-sacs. Cartography is less an attempt to represent facts as accurately as possible than it is an endeavour to distort the least.’

— Lesley Lokko, from The Past is a Foreign Country (2018).

In his latest project Kartografi (Kɑɹˈtɑɡɹəfi), Scott Eric Williams responds to our collective fear of nearness through engaging subfields, themes and processes of mapping, both digitally and in real life. His is a celebration of public space and an invitation to engage with the physical world as an antidote to digital overload. The project is presented in collaboration with Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre, formed as a vehicle to reimagine dance through innovative approaches of staging and presenting contemporary works. 

Origins

Originating from ancient Greek, kartografi (kɑɹˈtɑɡɹəfi) encompasses two words: “chartēs”, which means paper or papyrus, and “graphein”, which means “to write”. Written on paper, cartography is evidently about authorship and authority — writing histories and writing place, with theoretical and practical agendas. Cartography, as a process of map-making, produces a set of knowledge about spatial relations and the location of entities — it is about placeness, situatedness, interspace and terrain, representing both physical and political boundaries. 

Within this project, Williams proposes a reconfiguration of connectedness, what he considers “a laboratory for mapping new ways of being”. By merging dance, drone photography, digital art and wheat paste, he offers a proposition that considers the symbiotic relationship between the digital and analogue, between motion and rest. 

Online, through the University of Cape Town Institute for Creative Arts’ fellowship programme, viewers are asked to participate by navigating the abstract space. By zooming and scrolling, one finds clickable objects that reveal staged performances. 

A grid is used as a palimpsest (red lines on a white surface), grey polyhedrons fill space and location markers are interspersed with aerial images of bodies in a state between rest and play. Line, shape and form merge, creating rhythm and harmony. 

Gabriel Mehlomakhulu in Kartografi. (Photo: Oscar O’Ryan)

Linked to the images is an interactive map that locates the physical wheat-paste artworks across the city of Cape Town. Individual locations include: Aubrey Street, Greatmore Studios (James Street side), Inside 10 Yew Street, Side Street Studios and BG Café Take Aways — some of which are open by appointment only. Once they reach the physical site, participants are encouraged to take a photo of themselves with the wheat paste, which they can upload onto the interactive map. Here, authorship is removed from artist to participant, creating the potential for a sense of community to emerge. 

The project uses the digital to drive users into the public space. By encouraging the use of public space, Kɑɹˈtɑɡɹəfi raises the following questions: 

  • What are the reconfigured definitions of the public within which we must now work?
  • How do we draw closer to audiences and participants while respecting social distancing regulations?
  • How do we interact while lessening the emphasis of technology in our interactions?
  • How do we, as artists and cultural producers, avoid taxing the attention span of our audiences even further?
  • How do we ensure that we account for attention fatigue — by considering parameters such as brevity of form, content and composition? and
  • How then do we address audiences more intimately?

Born of the condition of national lockdown and notions of creativity and productivity during this time when home life and work life have become entangled, Kɑɹˈtɑɡɹəfi is a contemplation of space. It reflects on space and provides options to guard against screen fatigue.

Intellectual movements

In the bibliographic project, On Circulations and the African Imagination of a Borderless World (2018), The Chimurenga Chronic expands thinking on cartography to include the charting of intellectual movements that make up the African archive. It traces a long genealogy of spiritual and political communities, from Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania and Guinea to Democratic Republic of the Congo, in “a relentless quest to open new epistemic pathways”. 

Here the question of cartography is not just about enclosure (of space, of thought process, methods, and so forth), it is about circulation and movement too — movement as suggested through images in Williams’s project (material) but also psychological, mystic and philosophical movement, particularly movement as a strategy for survival. 

Linked to the images in Kartografi is an interactive map that locates the physical wheat-paste artworks across the city of Cape Town. (Image courtesy of Scott Williams)

The idea of movement as a strategy of survival and resistance is beautifully encapsulated by American artist Todd Gray. After his solo exhibition, Pluralities of Being (2017), at Gallery Momo in Johannesburg he noted, “Resistance is constant movement.  The dominant culture is everywhere … the only way to subvert it is to keep moving, because once you stop moving, the dominant culture catches up and they will either stereotype or appropriate!” 

Movement, as it relates to resistance, is often reinforced by fugitivity, where “being fugitive implies that borders have been and/or are still to be overcome”, as noted by the academic Paula von Gleigh in 2017. Scholar Saidiya Hartman reminds us that fugitivity can be riotous — a refusal to be contained (a collapsing of space), and Tina Campt points us to fugitivity (of flight and escape) that marshals persistence and Black futurity. 

Kɑɹˈtɑɡɹəfi, too, suggests fugitivity — an attempt to escape the emphasis of technology in our interactions, as well as an attempt to escape our collective fear of nearness. 

A preoccupation with space

This project is not Williams’s first preoccupation with space and connections. In 2019, the artist presented a solo exhibition, Portals (curated by Refilwe Nkomo for Underline Projects). This body of work sought to examine power, movement, access and visibility in the context of African urban futurity and space of expanded possibilities, empowerment and emancipation. 

Perhaps the origins of these investigations draw from even earlier explorations. Previously, Williams, together with Justin Davy, Jarrett Erasmus, Tazneem Wentzel and Grant Jurius, founded the collective, Burning Museum (2012-2015).

During its operational years, the collective drew on archival images, photography and the medium of wheat-pasting as forms of resistance. 

Burning Museum members Grant Jurius, Scott Williams, Jarrett Erasmus, Tazneem Wentzel and Justin Davy. (Image courtesy of Scott Williams)

In a 2015 feature on Artthrob, Tim Leibbrandt proposes a reading of the collective’s work as “counter-hegemonic interventions whose objective is to occupy the public space in order to disrupt the smooth image that corporate capitalism is trying to spread”. 

This is in line with Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s concept of “agonistic democracy”. Self-described as engaging with themes such as history, identity, space and structure, and interested in the stories that linger as ghosts on gentrified street corners, the collective is primarily remembered for their interventions in the old District Six, marking walls of buildings with large-scale portraits to recall traumatic losses of the past because of forced removals, as well as continued gentrification. 

This takes us back to Lokko’s assertion that “cartography is less an attempt to represent facts as accurately as possible than it is an endeavour to distort the least”.

If indeed cartography distorts, then it makes sense that we should interrogate its workings, its methods and its effects. 

A wheatpaste rendering of Thandile Mbatsha in Kartografi. (Photo: Scott Williams/Darkroom Contemporary)

Williams’s Kɑɹˈtɑɡɹəfi does this through dislocation. Firstly, a dislocation through linguistics — “Kartografi” not “cartography”; secondly a dislocation of the clear boundaries between the digital and analogue; and lastly as a dislocation of what we visualise when we think about lines and maps. 

Its success is its ability to contain and articulate a combination of complex ideas — broadening our thinking of mapping beyond just physical boundaries by nudging us towards the psychological and philosophical. 

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the Mail & Guardian and the Goethe-Institut focusing on various aspects of innovation

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Nkgopoleng Moloi
Nkgopoleng Moloi is a writer and photographer. She is studying for an MA in contemporary curatorial practices at the University of the Witwatersrand, with a focus on exploring womxn’s mobility and freedom of movement

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