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This timely essay revisits some key questions for visual culture: what is the politics of visuality? how are scopic regimes determined and contested? is representation a weapon? My thoughts here are in counterpoint with the project and in search of alternative modes of depiction.
There are many competing geographies of expansion and conquest that map space to be conquered. Perspective (or better, the aerial viewpoint) is one, and well described and visualized here. But there are others and there is a dialectics of seeing that needs to be acknowledged so that one given mode does not appear irresistible. I think of Vermeer's painting 'The Geographer,' depicting a Dutch scholar rapt in silent contemplation of the new imperialism of the period in his study. The space has clear visual homologies with the camera obscura. Light enters the space to create illumination, just as the mind filters and sieves through the web of sensory perception. Soon explorers and sailors generated a scornful term for this kind of scholarly geography, calling it 'closet philosophy.' They preferred what Captain Cook and others called the 'eye-witness' view of lands to be claimed, named and mapped from the ship, rather than the plane. The two Western viewpoints collided with and intersected the claim of those already in the space to map it in their own way, which had suddenly become 'primitive' or 'Aboriginal' rather than (for example) 'maori', which means 'ordinary' but became the designation of a 'nation' in need of 'civilization'.
The conflicts of our own time have created what the Israeli architect Eyal Weizmann has called the 'politics of verticality' in describing how Israel has retained control of airspace, electronic space, water and even sewage in what it calls the 'Palestinian authority'. Policed from the panoptic viewpoint of the hilltop 'settlements' that are now intended to be permanent police stations on the West Bank, the Palestinians have no access to circulation, depth and height. Their response, their demand to be seen, is once again called 'barbaric' and 'primitive'. Zionism claimed a 'a land without a people for a people without a land'. Captain Cook claimed Australia as 'terra nullius', literally 'nothing land'. Can the virtual tools of the internet be used to create an alternative mapping of space or is web space irredemably 3-D Cartesian space as some have claimed? What counterpoint can digital mapping offer to the aerial view that sees nothing?
Some questions further relating these thoughts to Dead Reckoning:
1. What does perspective fail to map?
2. What is the relation of air power and its elevated viewpoint to naval power and its mapping?
3. Who or what haunts the maps, the aerial photographs and the renderings of space, making them uncanny?
- Nicholas Mirzoeff, New York University, 12.12.2006