Work by Nina Katchadourian
Nina Katchadourian and the Bedevilment of Space
by Cinqué Hicks
I remember the exact moment the outside world became real for me by way of an encounter with a map at the local library more than two decades ago. Flipping through various encyclopedias and atlases, I came across a page in one especially massive tome in which a tiny stretch of the Normandy coast was rendered across a spread at a scale of some 2 feet by 3-and-a-half feet. This was a region of the earth that I had never seen rendered larger than perhaps as a 1-inch square, and I was startled by the explosion of space I was witnessing. Like most children, I had imagined that I took up an enormous amount of space in the world, and that the world was a small, knowable, controllable extension of my own psyche. Encountering this map, I was obliterated, brought to a state of total insignificance. It was the first time I remember ever being conscious of the fact that things exist not as a result of my contact with them, but because of the existential primacy of the thing itself. In other words, the world “out there” was real, not an abstract fiction, and it didn’t particularly need me in order to exist.
Brooklyn-based Nina Katchadourian’s multiform artistic practice taps into this peculiar ability of maps and displays of information not only to reflect, but to condition particular psychological realities. Katchadourian grew up in Northern California, making an annual pilgrimage to her family’s cottage in Finland. From an early age, she learned to measure time in terms of space and to regard language as a plaything, always unfamiliar and provisional. Through installation, photography, sculpture, and digital media, Katchadourian makes a circuit between the familiar and unfamiliar, confounding contexts, and rendering information profoundly uninformative, all to explore how we know what we think we know about where we are.
I spoke with Katchadourian recently and asked her if she thought there might be something in our cultural moment that is calling for this reimagining of space.
Nina Katchadourian: To give an obvious answer, it must have something to do with the fact that it is a lot easier to move around, faster than ever before to more places than ever before. Or even, to really spout out a cliché, “from the comfort of your own home” via the internet, we have access to so much stuff and information, even maybe a sort of false sense of connection to other places far away. But I do sort of feel like from your armchair you have that now in a way that we completely take for granted. I can’t even remember anymore when I didn’t have email. It’s funny I remember when I got it, and I think about people growing up never not having had it. I think that all our methods of communication have changed: the pace of it, the expectations for it, the tolerance for the volume of it, all of this kind of stuff.
Another really important part of my summer experiences [in Finland] is that I grew up writing really long, proper letters back and forth to my friends when I was gone. In this kind of correspondence you had to learn to wait a week or two to get a letter back from someone, even if they wrote back right away. It was not going to be an instant response. Time and place for me, and distance, I think we’re very much shaped by that feeling of a physical thing traveling across space to get to you, from my friend in California to me in Finland. The way that that gap got measured by mail was important as a kid. The same friend now who lives in Australia can call me on her cell phone ‘cause she’s got some plan where she has an American number and I can call her whenever as long as the time zone works out.
It’s funny: it doesn’t necessarily make it any less mysterious to me though that I’m talking to her in Australia. It’s still kind of a weird buzz around thinking that she’s under the globe and I’m up here. We like to think that we’ve gotten so used to this and none of this is weird anymore. But I’d have to say that there are still tinges for me of, “Oh my god, she’s on that country down there shaped in this way that I can see in my mind’s eye.”
Cinqué Hicks: That makes me think that when you cut out the longest road in Finland and curl it up into a petri dish, or cut out the highways in Austria and put them into the shape of a heart, that in some ways is actually a more accurate representation of how we experience space.
NK: I think there are a few things that are connecting to the question you’re asking me. One is that the very first map I ever made—I made this when I was a senior in college and it was in response to this assignment we had in an art class—was this big paper world map that I’d cut apart and completely built up again with all the countries in the wrong place but with an eye toward also making it look, initially, like maybe not a whole lot of change. So it was playing with a lot of bigger geographic forms that were familiar, like the way that North America works into Central America works into South America. Those shapes were often still kind of recognizable but different things had been substituted in. It’s called World Map. It’s an important one ‘cause it’s what started this whole map thing.
It’s not strange for someone like me probably, with the family that I have, to end up scrambling the world around and having that seem in fact kind of normal looking. I mean that is the way the family background has played out.
But the other thing about maps is that I think that the reason I make a lot of maps that connect anatomy or that look like the Austria-heart one or Finland’s Longest Road, which is in this petri dish—there’s all these connections to science and anatomy and biology—is that I think there is this funny leap of faith that is really similar for me when it comes to studying geography and thinking about, for example, the shape of an organ inside you. I’m kind of just taking it on someone else’s researched opinion that Austria really is that shape that I see on the map or that my heart really is that thing that beats inside me that I can’t see or quantify but that supposedly is that shape. That may be different for a doctor, it may be different for an astronaut who can see these things with their own eyes from space. I guess that’s the best term I have for it, this sort of “leap of faith” feeling of, “Okay, I guess that’s what’s out there.” That’s what’s funny about maps. They’re never really a view of a subjective experience on the ground. It’s an impossible view from above. And I was for a long time making maps that were trying to deal more with that really super-subjectivity and, ultimately, maps that were un-navigable and un-useful because they were so subjective, but where it was more about walking a line on the ground and tracking that versus trying to get this big overview where all these things are simultaneously down there.
CH: And then the other thing about the overviews, and the maps as seen from a distance is that really they’re records of power. And they’re records of how power has been used and misused and deployed in any number of circumstances. Clearly these lines don’t literally exist on the face of the planet, but they exist as records of how districts have been administered in certain ways and how people have been categorized in certain ways.
NK: Absolutely. They’re also really interesting things in the history of [maps]. I was reading a lot for a while on the history of how Australia got mapped. It’s such a great example of how we sometimes go sailing out in search of something that we hope is going to be there but we’re not sure it’s really there. What happened was that there was this Enlightenment assumption that the world is a rational place and there would be the same amount of landmass in the Northern and the Southern hemispheres, which turns out to not be true. There really is just less landmass in the Southern hemisphere, but there was this idea for a long time that there had got to be this big Southern continent that hadn’t been discovered yet. It had to be out there. So, people set off sailing to find it, to find it, to find it and, of course, with great hopes that there would be this spectacular place of great riches and all that. And, so, what happens is that the Northern coast of Australia, eventually Captain Cook bumps into it finally. And gradually you can see the changes on maps. They gradually start sailing around the whole thing and almost carving it out. But in the meantime there’s all this projection and there’s all this hoping. So all kinds of things are getting drawn on the map before they’ve actually been seen.
There’s this funny thing: does the map in fact make you go to find the place that you’ve already put on the map even though you haven’t seen it yet? And this weird desire almost being the thing that spurs investigation. But I’m not explaining this right. It’s almost as if the thing you’ve already pictured or hoped for becomes so real that then you set off to find it.
CH: So the map emerges as a conversation between what’s actually physically there and what we hope is there.
NK: Yeah, that’s well put. With Australia they finally did figure out, “Oh, this is it. That’s it!”
CH: I see a strand very strongly in your work, this strand of humor and funny things and jokes. And I wonder, though, what the risk is. I wonder if you deal with the risk of being merely funny. And how you deal with simply doing a one-liner as opposed to something more, or maybe you don’t care.
NK: This is an important question. I get asked about humor in the work a lot. My feeling is that it’s a lazy viewer who believes that just because something is funny it means it can’t have content. I mean that’s an absurd assumption to me. I don’t set out to make things that are funny. I’m happy if people laugh. That never bothers me. I never think that’s a problem. But I don’t sit in my studio and think, “What can I do that would be funny? Oh that would be funny!” That’s not the criteria. It’s not important that it end up that way. It’s not a problem for me if people laugh.
I also would insist, though, that I’ve never made anything that’s funny that doesn’t also have a point to make. So I find myself sometimes becoming on occasion irritated. Another review that came out, for example, about the project I have calledTalking Popcorn, where, yes, I realize it’s a strange thing to do, to translate popcorn using Morse code. It’s an odd idea. And I don’t mind if people think, “Oh my god. Wow. What?! Why?!” That’s fine. But I remember a review that started something like, “What drug was she on when she thought of this? Har-har!” And that’s fine, but there’s a lot in that piece being said, too, about the desire for us to have things mean something, the problem of translation, the whole dilemma of when you’re trying to communicate in a language that you don’t quite speak very well. How are you going to make sense of a situation like that, and all the meaning that we tend to read into situations like that in order for things to make sense. The piece is a huge rumination for me on the desire for communication to work out. That’s arguably a topic where a lot could be at stake. And certainly if you want to take it to a global, political realm, a lot lies in our ability or desire to communicate or not.
I balk at the person who’s like, “Oh, I laughed, I’m done.” That’s what I call lazy viewing. But that can be the problem. I really recognize that when people approach art with an expectation of just “I’m here to be entertained” then once they’ve laughed sometimes they think they’re done. And to me that’s only the hook. It’s the hook but it’s not the whole story.
CH: In the popcorn piece that comes right back around to being in Finland but Swedish [which you speak] not being helpful there. In foreign places where you don’t speak the language and the trouble that that brings.
NK: Right. Trouble and sometimes a whole lot of glee and humor. I spent half of my junior year abroad in college in Indonesia. I went to study this musical instrument I had gotten really obsessed with in college and I had to learn Indonesian in like ten days. Because it’s a pretty simple language structurally, it was possible to become reasonably conversational in a pretty quick amount of time. But, my god, were there situations where I would sit there going, “I hope we’re having the same conversation. I think we are, but I really hope we are ‘cause otherwise this is pretty strange.” [both laugh]
CH: I want to ask one last question, which is, Where are you headed in the future? What’s the next step for you?
NK: My [upcoming] project for Marfa [coming September 2008 under the auspices of Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, Texas] is a whole other story. I lead another sub-life as a musician, as a singer. There’s moments in recent years where the identities crossed over a little bit more. My project for Marfa is in some ways actually a music project. I’m advertising a free jingle-writing service in papers and on the radio and around and about town. Anybody who wants a jingle for their business, or for their club, or for some kind of community organization is welcome to contact me. Then with these people I hope to work out different jingles to actually record them in Marfa. I’m going to get people to hopefully participate in their own jingles. And then they’re going to end up on the radio there. So it’s kind of a way to explore the place, but also to collaborate with people who are there. And in some ways just offer myself as a service to the people who are the locals to put the word out about whatever it is they want the word put out about.
In terms of what’s coming up, there’re also things that are going to be very specific responses to specific situations. I like that. It always stretches me to sort of try to work that way, especially when I don’t know the place.
I'm tempted to say that it is more important now than ever before to interrogate how we map and represent the external world. But the truth is this has always been a critical practice; the rise and fall of empires, the extinctions of entire races have pivoted on how space, language, and culture have been mapped. The work of Nina Katchadourian points to that fragile process, plays with it, and leaves us dancing on the ground that shifts beneath our feet.
Cinqué Hicks is an artist, writer, and curator whose article "Code Z, Arts Reporting, and the End of Black Art" appeared in the October, 2007 issue of The Art Section.