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|Mapping Excess, Seeking Uses
Bureau d'études and Multiplicity
|by Brian Holmes
|Utopian ideas — like "Spaceship Earth"
— are round, multidimensional, interrelated: their archetypal map is the Milky Way,
the infinite constellations. But rational thinking is instrumental, linear, it distorts:
that's exactly the problem with the Mercator map, the most common world projection.
Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, created a "Dymaxion map"
to undo those distortions. First the earth becomes a geometric figure, an isocahedron:
its 20 triangles are disjointed and laid flat, so the land masses radiate from a
nexus in the north, without splitting continents or enlarging polar regions. Fuller
based his politics on this map: at the '67 World Expo in Montreal, in the dome of
the U.S. pavilion, he wanted to lay out a vast Dymaxion projection, and animate it
with the most up-to-date statistics, so visitors could watch the flow of resources
across the earth — and identify the patterns, the inequalities, the most wasteful
and efficient solutions. Delegations from different regions would meet for cooperative
sessions, in a problem-solving process called the "World Peace Game." The
basic idea was simple: radical democracy. "Make the world work, for 100% of
humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without
ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."1
Gerardus Mercator was a Protestant scholar from Flanders; he published his map in
1569, to help European merchants plot routes to distant shores. The ability to sail
in straight lines led to a capitalist world-economy. Oyvind Fahlström was a
Swedish artist who spent his childhood in Brazil, and died in the U.S.A. His World
Map was painted in 1972, not long after Fuller imagined his utopia. Fahlström's
map recalls the Mercator projection: but the oceans have practically disappeared,
the continents are crushed or swollen by the political pressures that the world-economy
brings. Space overflows with clashes between the wealthy and the downtrodden, the
CIA and the freedom-fighters, the capitalists, the communists, the revolutionaries.
Fahlström was interested in resistance and excess: by which I mean politics
plus overflowing subjectivity, figurative invention. For him, a map was a
flat, rule-governed space for a strict social game; but it also was an open territory
for imaginary play.2 In the early seventies he created a series of Monopoly sets
(CIA Monopoly, World Trade Monopoly, Indochina, etc.), where
political and economic information provides inflexible rules, whatever out passion,
whatever our creativity. Yet a work like his Pentagon Puzzle — including a
detail of a square earth, wrapped in chains — could also be taken apart, dispersed,
its pieces reinserted into another game.
Fuller's utopia was not accepted for the U.S. pavilion in 1967: at the entryway,
officials placed a huge golden eagle. But today, Internet access has brought tremendous
information to our reach. Now everyone can play at mapping resources. Part of Bucky's
heritage is "osEarth Inc.," which organizes World Game sessions on a huge
Dymaxion map, as a learning experience for youth — but also for Fortune 500 corporations.
"Global civil society," with all its complicities, is squarely on the map
Does anyone doubt that Fahlström's Monopoly sets, with their focus on political
confrontation, come much closer to the games the world really plays? Yet the recent
round of counter-summits and global demonstrations still recall Fuller's basic idea.
And one begins to wonder: where are the artist-cartographers of today?
The Paris-based conceptual group, Bureau d'études, works intensively in
two dimensions. For a recent exhibition called "Planet of the Apes" they
created integrated wall charts of the ownership ties between transnational organizations,
a synoptic view of the world monetary game. Against a black ground, shield-like forms
are emblazoned with the names of states, regulatory bodies, think tanks, financial
firms and corporations. Texts on privatization and flexibilization are posted among
the circuit-like arrays. A few spots give way to blue zones, humorous and surreal,
like word-balloons or psychic oceans: these hold counter-information from autonomous
zones, manifestos, constitutions, calls to action...
Instead of a catalogue, the visitor gets three "Wartime Chronicles," single
sheets that divide the power players into overlapping regions. One is a finance pole,
with pension funds, portfolio managers and banks, plus gray zones of legitimating
foundations. Another shows telecoms, media groups, networks of consumer distribution.
So you want to call the police on these criminals? Military institutions, intelligence
agencies, weapon makers and satellite companies complete the picture. A few quotes
run along the sides of the sheets, like this one from the artist Fabrice Hybert:
"My first collector, well, big collector... was a mediator for NATO and the
big structures like that, NATO and the African or South American countries, something
like that, another one is a mediator for all the arms industries, well, you know,
it's horrible but he has this capacity to abstract himself in that scene... Me, I
like people like that."3
There's a wager here: paint a totalitarian picture, crystal clear, and people will
look for the cracks in some other dimension. Another giveaway, the eight-page text
called "Potentiels," explores "autonomous knowledge and powers,"
with a survey of different anarchist positions, as well as maps or figures listing
dissident knowledge producers, squats and hacklabs, plus a chart that relates various
forms of non-capitalist exchange. A non-price (0 euros) and a contractual note figures
on each of the sheets: "The present publication cannot be acquired, sold or
destroyed. All persons may nonetheless use it as long as they please, with an obligation
to give it to others if no longer desired."
This last detail has its importance: as Bruce Sterling put it: "Information
Wants To Be Worthless" — worthless in monetary terms, that is.4 And far beyond
the computer logic of Open Source, the great alternative project of the last decade
has been mapping the transnational space invested primarily by the corporations,
and distributing that knowledge for free. This is the real power of "spontaneous
cooperation," in a global information project like Indymedia. Across a decade
and more, from the early '80s to the mid-90s, the rules of the neoliberal economy
were hidden in the back holes of offshore operations. Today, a multitude of projects
like "Planet of the Apes" are making them increasingly visible. To the
point where a new resistance means we can start imagining — or exploring — a radically
different map of the earth again.
Fuller would have loved the design of the Internet, which makes information-sharing
possible for the World Game. Fahlström, the admirer of cartoonist Robert Crumb,
would have loved the crowd at the Days of Global Action: autonomous and wild, intelligent
and quick on their feet. Bureau d'études is in that crowd: by collaborating
with squats, jobless people and sans papiers, by operating a self-organizing
space in Strasbourg, the "Syndicat Potentiel," and combining it with "Université
Tangente," a project for autonomous knowledge production, they have begun quietly
broadcasting a pragmatic intransigence to the younger artists on a French art scene
dominated by the likes of Fabrice Hybert. This summer, they will meet the No-Border
Network in attempts to subvert one of the strongest power-lines: the Schengen Information
System. Activities like those simply can't appear on the walls on the art world.
In this sense, half the work of Bureau d'études remains underground: the refusals
and denunciations are clear, the cooperation and subjective play remains almost invisible.
And maybe it's better that way: how could you successfully represent an alternative,
radically democratic experience?
A sophisticated mapping project tries to answer just that question. The screen
before you shows a purple-black mass, spangled with mesmerizing constellations: slowly
you realize it's a night-photo of urbanized Europe, with white rectangles marking
zones of potential activity. The scene breaks: music plays, letters dance and roll,
spelling out words; and you begin to wander within a matrix of slightly elevated,
freestanding screens. You find yourself surrounded by distinct sets of imposing,
static black-and-white images of architectural arrays; then snapshot color pics of
people mingling freely in a everyday scenes; then sustained interviews in black-and-white
with huge talking heads; then lyrical video strolls through some personal warp in
the urban terrain. Stop in front of one screen, and a story unfolds: setting, actors,
individual story, subjective path through the city. Until the scene breaks, the language
rolls, the music plays, and the permutations begin differently again. On the fringes
of the art world, a group of urbanists has created one of the most impressive systems
of visual representation to appear in recent years: USE, or the "Uncertain
States of Europe," a project by Stefano Boeri and Multiplicity.
Multiplicity is a networked research team, exploring the European territory as it
changes, in twenty-six different sites from Athens to Espoo, from Porto to Bucharest
or Moscow. The basic premise is that borders are ungraspable, that architectural
programs and urban limits are unstable — but everywhere, the subjective excess of
"autopoetic innovations" creates recognizable patterns of change, at least
for the observer who mingles with them. For Boeri, whose aim is to deconstruct an
outdated urban planner's gaze, what we are seeing is "the triumph of the multitude":
consistently mutating but thoroughly unpredictable patterns of self-organization,
niching in built environments that have increasingly lost their predetermined function.
Thus one of the sequences (keyword: détournement) recounts how the
uses of the Chinese community have the completely transformed the ideal program of
a huge modern housing slab in the 13th district of Paris. Another (keyword: eruption)
deals with the careful organization of chaotic raves, "nomadic flames":
"The paths of the millions of ravers and tribes that invade Europe's streets
every weekend bring us ever further away from a precise, functional destination."5
The reference to the multitude in Boeri's text, and indeed, on the screens of USE,
recalls the political thinking of Italian Autonomia, with their central theme of
"exodus," or conscious withdrawal from modernist planning and salaried
labor. Obviously it's a dilemma for the traditional urbanist, or for any politician
wanting to exercise control: "Escaping this condition of powerlessness simply
implies accepting the ungovernability of a great deal of the contemporary territory,"
writes Boeri. This in its turn would mean "learning to act in a context directed
by different, highly variable subjects."6 Or in what I would call a situation
of radical democracy.
But the big question that remains is how to use an installation like USE,
and the operational model of a networked, collaborative research group like Multiplicity.
The actual piece, elaborated outside the typical gallery-museum circuit, is the best
installation I've yet seen on interactive social process: with its extensive matrix
of screens, it opens up a real-and-imaginary territory, a multidimensional, interrelated
world of subjective freedoms. But to what extent is that effectively political? "To
resist is not to be against, any more, but to singularize," writes Suely Rolnik,
reflecting on the changing meanings of artistic practice since the Great Refusal
of the 1960s. "All and any acts of resistance are acts of creation and not acts
Beautifully said — but I'm not sure it's so easy. The great theoretical swing of
the past three decades, from critical negation to use value and subversive affirmation,
has left "progressive" practices wide open to every complicity. Despite
the autopoetic processes that an installation like USE so brilliantly lets
us see, the entire planet — Spaceship Earth — is prey to a resurgence of repressive
authority, within the perfectly legible game of the capitalist world-economy. Berlusconi's
Italy, where the project has been shown, is hardly an exception: and the resistance
is not yet strong enough. Can we imagine artistic representations of self-organizing
processes, in open confrontation with that game? "Rules oppose and derail subjectivity,
loosen the imprinted circuits of the individual," wrote Oyvind Fahlström.
Only then does a deeper territory emerge, a more complex interplay: power lines/radical
1. Quoted in Medard Gabel, "Buckminster Fuller and the Game of the World,"
at <www.worldgame.org/info/fuller.shtml>. Thanks to Hubert Salden for putting
me on this track.
2. I use Suely Rolnik's distinction between "playing-the-game" and "just-playing,"
in "Oyvind Fahlström's Changing Maps," exhib. cat. Oyvind Fahlström:
Another Space for Painting, MACBA, Barcelona, 2001.
3. Interview on May 2, 1996, with Fabrice Hybert, artist representing France at the
Venice Biennial, in Bureau d'études, Chroniques de guerre 2, brochure,
4. Bruce Sterling, "Information Wants To Be Worthless," distributed free
over Nettime, March 6, 2002, archive at <http://nettime.org>.
5. Paolo Vari, "USE.04 Raves," in exhib. cat. Mutations, arc en
rêve centre d'architecture, Bordeaux, 2000.
6. Stefano Boeri, "Notes for a Research Program," in Mutations,
7. Suely Rolnik, "Oyvind Fahlström's Changing Maps," op. cit.
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