Sidesteps Toward Centers of Nowhere
By Kristina Ask
As the title indicates, this text is an attempt to take steps toward a place that is somewhat out of focus and not the actual point of interest. This place could be anywhere. The emphasis is on the movement toward a point and on the ways of getting there physically and mentally.
The destination could be identified by means of its representation; for instance, a map as just one of many obvious kinds of representation that tell different stories about the same location. More important in this context, however, is the kind of representation created by the movement itself and the impact of all the physical, mental, and cultural traces left behind. The text’s focus is therefore the act of movement. The following paragraphs will reach an as yet unknown point, moving along the lines of fragmented patterns, discovering different perspectives on the movement of people and ideas of how to approach a place. Nevertheless, this point is out of focus.
To take the first step and define a pattern by which to proceed, we will be following traces of cultural production. By serving as examples of cross-cultural producers, art workers on the move are creating language between places and thus language not connected to a specific location with one center but rather to a web of locations with multiple centers, the non-sites of cultural production. In this respect, culture is a simple, primary guideline for identifying and communicating about a space. When art workers are traveling the surface of a geographical area, including the crossing of national borders, centers such as capitals are the primary target. They are the site of multilingual hosts with the best possible infrastructure of communication and transportation and other facilities of interaction with the space, like the acceptance of credit cards and access to familiar products. Urban space is the physical, mental, and cultural framework of this journey.
Lines of guidance
What kinds of maps do art workers navigate by and, more importantly, what does the movement itself add to existent maps?
The terms place and movement are by nature contradictory and at the same time interdependent in their relation to the act of traveling. Place is a site to which a center belongs. The relation of center to periphery can be identified as distance (not only spatial but also economic or social), which has to do with movement (not only physical but also mental). Movement is an act of connecting points by locating the centers and peripheries of an area. For this purpose a map can as a multilingual representation be used to spell out distances.
Moving toward a place is an act that contributes to the destination’s definition. The traveling art worker brings along an identity that represents an “outside” location as well as predefined visions and ideas of the destination. This contributes to the notions of the specific location and makes the movement as such a redefining act, even before the traveler has started interpreting the new framework.
Fragmentary redefinitions produced by the commotion of movement superimpose with other existent interpretations and become part of a narrative of cultural intercourse. We move according to coordinates constantly negotiated on the terms of historical and contemporary differences. These negotiations are part of our perception of attained destinations and our identity as “belonging” elsewhere not just to a place but also to a set of rules, such as those of behavior and social exchange.
The ground on which we travel, and the conflicts and clashes defining it, is shaped by the movement of people. The history of this movement can be summed up by the words exploration and exploitation. From the exploration of land to the movement of people for the purpose of their exploitation, humans have migrated extensively throughout history. These human movements are followed by goods, diseases, myths, norms, and habits, which create ever-fluctuating definitions of places, along with the connections, differences, and relationships among them.
The guiding force in approaching an entirely “new” place is a mental awareness that makes us capable of translating the surrounding framework of otherness. The physical relocation and mental reorientation produces an openness that offers information access to our minds, transgressing the self-defense commonly guarding our perception. As constituents of the fluctuation that alters notions of place and belonging, our points of reference are also challenged. When a framework is new to us, we are not just navigating by exterior representations but also by notes in mental notebooks, and automatically we blend in experiences from everyday life mixed with fiction and fantasies of forgotten origin.
It is possible to return from afar without a sense of having experienced otherness, but traveling that instrumentalizes preconceived notions does not allow for exploration and is therefore not of interest in this context. The purpose of traveling art workers is thus to explore the mysteries of movement by way of connecting existing points to a web of shared experiences.
Between place and movement
Moving across borders in a region such as Europe from its corners, branches, and limits still under negotiation (e.g., the enlargement of the EU) to its currently accepted centers is a production of culture and an act of crossing, breaking, and building the identification of the place and the ideas of the people who “belong” there. As an appendix, this kind of production cross-references preconceived notions, maps, and identities. As a gesture that calls attention to an area previously hidden in the periphery of illuminated centers, exploratory movement also reveals parallel narratives in the underlying aspects of the passage itself. The history of the occupation of land and trading of humans is one facet of the relationship between place and movement. Human migration and its resultant reconstruction of places and identities are not far from the path of the cultural producer as the negative consequences of exchange among cultures and the dark side of historical reference. Is this distance between notions of place and movement off course? To the observing mind on a journey guided by openness, every path is equally relevant.
The freedom of movement necessary for art workers to travel the world and enter zones of otherness is somehow connected to others’ lack of this same freedom. Becoming part of the fluctuation, altering notions of place and belonging, and gaining a position to be heard in these zones inevitably reveal the involuntary movement of people including refugees and the deported. This too is an aspect of the possibility of some to freely move about while others cannot. The history of humans moving across the surface of the earth is a narrative of parallel paths: on the one hand, a movement of culture takes place with the movement of people; on the other, exclusion is used to constitute fixed notions of belonging. The movement of culture creates both bridges and barriers, widening existing gaps or overwriting conflicts due to the presence of and interaction with “the other.” In being confronted with otherness, entering a particular area out of need rather than of free choice, we share the responsibility of facilitating mutual integration by tearing apart set notions of identity and belonging. This is the only way to create multicultural spaces necessary for equal access to freedom.
Despite the access to lines of communication, the extensive distribution of information, and the frequent movement of people between centers of exchange, it seems possible to ignore a common experience of abuse and suppression. Humans are still involuntarily moved from place to place. How do different notions of place, movement, and distance influence our way of remembering and forgetting?
Trafficking, the “modern version” of trade with human beings, occurs within a relatively small geographic area of massive cultural production and exchange. Slavery of ancient times took place between regional centers and ”remote places,” spaces separated by great distances. This distance served to control the narratives and myths created around and during the involuntary movement of people. The knowledge of short-distanced trafficking in the present day seems destined to the dark urban alleys, the abyss of lost information. The structure of the multilingual and multifunctional urban centers, hosting difference by definition, allows diffusion of notions of freedom and abuse, opportunity and suppression and allows a general amnesia made possible by mass communication’s elimination of distance.
News from nowhere
What is the impact of changing concepts of distance in relation to place and movement? The short distance of communication and exchange does not push history forward in an evolution of learning from the past. On the contrary, the distance that facilitated control of the narration of slavery in older times is today an attempted strategy to control narratives of the same kind of abuse. Not only is today’s workforce moved short distances (as with trafficking), but workplaces are also moved over immense distances to take advantage of low wages made possible by human rights abuse and a lack of cultural exchange between the areas involved.
Traveling makes us part of the construction of a history that seems to be moving backwards. In a world of mass communication, we share the common experience of parallel movements of people and witness the resultant redefinitions of culture and belonging.
In psychology, the term displacement means an unconscious defense mechanism in which the mind redirects emotions from a “dangerous” object to a “safe” one. So too is movement a kind of displacement, redirecting narratives from one center of attention to another that may be out of focus. In this sense, displacement might serve as a way of dealing with the cruel downsides of human movement in the act of exchanging cultural capital (knowledge, experience, ideas). Creating narratives about the otherness experienced during traveling is not only an obvious way to capture and possess the dangerous object (out of fear) and turn it into a safe one, but it can also be a way to bridge gaps by daring to mentally step out of one position and into another. This movement displaces definitions of identity and ideas of belonging in a process of un-learning. Without the rearrangement an exterior as well as an interior reversal movement can become an exploitative act, part of an ugly history.
Appendix from the center
In physically reaching and, in the same movement, trying to mentally displace oneself from a center, a “safe object,” the many layers shaping the identity of the place are reorganized according to a new set of coordinates. Movement and language can be constituent when it “belongs” to a place, to some people, or to a set of ideas, and both can be subversive. To art workers producing cross-cultural language and exchangeable knowledge in the act of moving across barriers positioned between places, detached and displaced it is possible to reverse the gaze. The cartography of cultural production in motion is part of a large narrative forming a catalogue of centers of attention. The urbanization of information and the hiding of “dangerous knowledge” in dark alleyways must be the target of producers of cross-cultural, multilingual redefinitions. The exclusive opportunity to move freely only makes sense when one reworks the data hidden in urban infrastructures, thereby creating an appendix to a history moving backwards. The destination can first be reached when there is a sense of mutual understanding that contrasts with the vision, perception, and prejudice of the first encounter. Only then can the explorer actually begin to experience a place through an inverted gaze.
Copenhagen, July 2006