Notes towards Lie of the Land, 07-12 2006

Proposal for Dispatx Art Collective on the theme of Improvised Maps

In the analogue world, the furniture was nailed down in expectation of stormy seas ahead, and they came. The ship held or broke. Holding the subject's head still, freezing, clamping, restraining, was part of the photographer's art. Topographical photographs fixed forever the lie of the land, the breaking of a wave.

In the digital world the furniture slips and slides, becoming the man, becoming the boat, becoming the wave. And still the storms break.

Traditionally maps are either 'political' or 'physical'. The political map shows territorial borders; the physical shows features of geography such as mountains and oceans. Now satellites photographically map the earth from the viewpoint of a bird's eye in a fighter jet. We clearly see the physical but the political is of low resolution.

The aim of my venture is to shift the furniture around a little and make political maps of a sort. The digital era is for improvising without nails.

(Oxford 7/06)

Posted 30-08-2006 13:53:43

Dear Natasha

It is very strange - I am looking at a view of your apartment block from a satellite. I can see the trees you look out onto. And is it correct that two blocks away from you there is now a small swimming pool, which is maybe private? I can see cars in Komsomol Ave. And I can cross the main road and walk beside the barracks to the area from which I can see the Karma river. The viewpoint is military. The viewpoint is omnipotent.

The phone voice sounded friendly enough. "Hi, my name is Danny. I'm an officer in Israeli military intelligence. In one hour we will blow up your house".
Conal Urquhart reporting from Gaza City. The Guardian 28/7/06


Dear Shuka

Have a listen to this - Starry Night by Mazen Kerbaj -

It's a minimalistic improvisation by Lebanese trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj 'duetting' with the Israeli Air Force as it bombards Mazen's home city of Beirut. Recorded by Kerbaj on the balcony of his flat in Beirut on the night of 15/16 July 2006.

The opening shot of Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will' (1934) - the camera slowly descends through the clouds. It is filmed from Hitler's aircraft as it approaches Nuremberg.

A few weeks ago I came across some prints under a table in a bricolage shop near Limoges. They showed terrible atrocities, mostly perpetrated by Europeans on indigenous people. Later I looked them up on the internet and they turned out to be by Theodore de Bry, made around 1590. It seems that de Bry had never actually been to the Americas, but he spoke to sailors who had, and also read their accounts. He didn't know what Native Americans really looked like, and he gave them a strangely classical appearance. What is so interesting, apart from his terrific graphic facility, is this slippage. Part document, part phantasy, they are full of violent imaginings which tell us much about the European mind and the origins of the New World.

When making maps did de Bry take the same liberties with the known topography?

Herzog's movie 'Aguirre Wrath of God' begins with the conquistadors coming down from the cloud shrouded mountains.

Recently I was travelling on a coach from Oxford to London. Opposite was a young couple, amorously touching and holding each other. But there was also a lot of tension between them, mostly about family and whether he would go and see his mother, which he clearly didn't want to do. He took a phone call and kept saying how he couldn't believe he was back and how much culture shock he was experiencing. As I got off the bus I asked him where he had been. 'Afghanistan' he said. I thought to myself that young guys of my generation went there to smoke dope and travel on to India. Back then I knew an American girl who had been kidnapped and kept captive in an Afghan castle by her lover and his brother.

It is only a short flight between Amsterdam and London, but as the kid sitting behind me prattled on, it seemed interminable. He explained to the captive audience sitting next to him that he had been travelling for two years, island hopping, partying and sometimes climbing. This was his thirty-fourth flight. 'Everest is pretty easy these days with all the sherpas carrying your stuff'. He was going home to freeload off his parents whilst working in a bank to save up for his next useless expedition.

I have a recording of 'Comin' In On A WING and a PRAYER' by the Four Vagabonds (1943), which I play quite often. The harmonies and backbeat are terrific and it swings like crazy. I found the lyrics on a 'Patriotic' website -

One of our planes was miss-ing, two ho-ours o-ver due.

One of our planes was miss-ing, with all its gal-lant crew.

The ra-di-o sets were hum-ming, they wait-ed for a word;

Then a voice broke thru the hum-ming and this is what they heard:


"Com-in' In On A Wing And A Pray'r_______

Com-in' In On A Wing And A Pray'r_______

Tho' there's one mo-tor gone, we can still car-ry on,

Com-in' In On A Wing And A Pray'r_______

What a show_____ what a fight______

Yes, we real-ly hit our tar-get for to - night!

How we sing as we limp thru the air______

Look be - low, there's our field o-ver there____

With our full crew a- board and our trust in the Lord

we're Com-in' In On A Wing And A Pray'r_______

Passing over the red, empty expanse of the Gobi Dessert, small groups of yurts were occasionally distinguishable. I felt close to tears at the sight of such human resilience.

I'm thinking of starting a small subsection in my music collection dedicated to 'Jazz from Outer Space'. The analogy was used mostly the sixties when Apollo 11 made it hip in the way that 'atomic' was in the 'fifties. Already I have Betty Carter, Pharoah Sanders, Duke Ellington, Marcus Belgrave, David Durrah, Eric Dolphy, Dave Pike, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Steve Reid, Byron Morris and of course the great Sonny Blount, aka Sun Ra. Sonny milked the space theme for all it was worth, producing wonderful jazz on his way out there. But take a listen also to 'The Singles' which are mostly Doo-Wop and straight from the streets. Living in a communal house in Chicago and 'travelling the spaceways' seems entirely consistent to me.

I have a photo of Malevich's apartment somewhere. It had a semi-circular window. Yes, here it is. I used it in the background of this study entitled 'November Nights'. The woman is Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who after being publicly insulted by him at a dinner party one November evening in 1932, walked home alone, then shot herself. In the foreground is Osip Mandlstam whose 'peasant-slayer' poem about Stalin, written in November 1933, eventually cost him his life.

Posted 2006-10-03 13:39:23

David was a rear gunner and got shot down over Germany. His leg was damaged whilst bailing out and it gave him increasing pain as he got older. He was in P.O.W. camps for four years and when he got home he settled into a routine job at the factory. But the thing was with David that he never spoke about anything other than the camps. He would turn every conversation back to it. My wife thought it a classic case of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. I wondered if there was something else, an event so traumatic he could never speak of it?

My friend Charles was always doodled maps. He knew a thing or two about European history and architecture. I found this one amongst his letters, mostly sent from hospital. 'I want this to be a nice letter, but I fear the worst'. In all the many years we knew each other, the only moment of tension between us was over the ownership of some copies of 'Sniffing Glue' which we both coveted.

My christian names, John and Philip, are like a memorial torch. John was my mother's older brother who died in a Japanese camp on the Burma railway. My older brother was given the name, but he died at birth. Philip was a friend of my father's and a fighter pilot. He was shot down over Belgium. My father wasn't sentimental or emotional, but towards the end of his life he visited the area to find Philip's grave, which he did. He also found a man there who witnessed the plane coming down.

'Whilst the American space programme spent millions developing a pen that would work in space, the Russians told their cosmonauts to use a pencil.'

It's a nice story - the triumph of common sense and all - but I think the Americans got it right. Last week I read that they can now do medical operations in space. I wouldn't want my blood floating around the operating theatre.

These models were made to help Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707) in planning a chain of forts across the lowlands of Flanders (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille). He built star-shaped forts with straight-sided moats, which left no blind spots where an attacker could hide. His defenders could fire on the enemy with cannon mounted behind thick walls on the ramparts; and rake the moats with handguns fired through slits in the walls.

I was once invited to participate in a project in Spain. There were photographers involved from all over Europe. On the first day, after a much-delayed start, we piled onto the coach, only to drive a few hundred yards and stop again. "I've got to buy the maps," announced our host who then disappeared for another forty-five minutes, leaving us in the increasingly hot vehicle. It was interesting to observe the reaction of the participants; the northern Europeans were tearing their hair out, whilst the southerners were amiably chatting, getting to know each other.

Coronelli Globes, one celestial and the other terrestrial, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts and L'Hospice Comtesse, Lille

Posted 2006-10-25 10:53:19


I thought I should offer a third posting, so as not to short change. Short change is actually the preferred currency of the contemporary art world. Some trifling little idea spun out over a decade usually sells pretty well. Like a pop lyric it should be catchy and easily remembered; a gallerist needs to be able to pitch it in thirty seconds, and the buyer recount it, to the delight of his dinner guests, in not much longer. Time is money.

The Life Class

Mr Goff 1992

In February 1991 I visited a family friend in an old people's home in Somerton, Somerset. Mr. Goff, like most of us at that time, was watching the Gulf War 'live' on television. The TV pictures seemed to act as an aide memoire and he began to recall his experiences as a young man during the First World War in this same terrain, then called Mesopotamia.

I returned later that year to photograph him and record his reminiscences on videotape. A few weeks later I made my third and final visit. He had died during the previous night and lay in his small room, strangely still in the half-light.

As in Stanley Spencer's Sandham Memorial Chapel, Mr. Goff's narrative concerned the domestic daily lives of young working class boys far from home. They seemed like a group of castaways in the silent terrain, until that is, the day on which they marched over a low ridge and were cut down by Turkish machine gun fire.

The desert photograph was in fact made overlooking Armageddon in Israel.

I've started to dream Google Earth Dreams, but I'm suspicious of their easy glide. It reminds me of a strange discorporate experience I once had in my teens; floating on the ceiling, I saw myself sitting on the bed below.

Private View

Artists make lousy friends of one another. It's a shame. When I was young I thought there would be camaraderie, but it's mostly low-level civil war.

Arms, Cash and Culture

This picture was made in Spain in 1985, and its themes are further developed in the new work I'm making for our maps project.

I hear it again, the old complaint, that the internet lacks 'materiality'. 'My fashion students just surf the net and never get a sense of the texture of fabrics'. Well Granny, in my experience fashion students get out-and-about and pay closer attention to what they see in the streets than most of us do. And I know so many artists who barricade themselves into their studios, to keep the world at bay, sans computer. You can also have a little too much 'materiality'. Louise Bourgeois defined a sculptor as 'someone with a storage problem', and that goes for me too. Hence my involvement with this project. The idea of making something with no pretence at sales (just download them if you want), and leaving nothing 'material' to encumber the kids with when I go, appeals immensely.

Strongman from The New World Circus 2004/6

Today for the first time BBC breakfast radio was broadcast from Basra. No coincidence surely that the Americans and British are preparing the way to pull out of Iraq, and leave the Iraqis to get on with their civil war and all that might follow in the region. What a terrible, frightening mess the 'coalition of the willing' has made - it makes me ashamed.

I recieved a malicious review recently. I'd been half expecting it, having had a dustup in a pub with the journal's editor a few years back. Fortunately it was poorly argued but the writer accused my New World Circus series of dealing with the Iraq war in too obvious a manner. Well, it wasn't obvious enough for his observations to stray far from the press release, but it did set me thinking. How subtle can you be about the deaths of so many Iraqis? Picasso said of his reasons for joining the Communist party, that art isn't for decorating apartments, but for fighting the enemy.

Acrobats from The New World Circus 2004/6

'Seamless photography' is an aim, when using Photoshop, akin to a Sunday painter's aesthetics of 'rightness'. For example, in front of a Monet; "he's got the sky wrong but the trees are right". Photographs are created through a unified photo-optical system which renders all parts of the image in an identical manner. The question when sampling and constructing digitally is whether to imitate the dead-handed logic of the photograph, or to allow for idiosyncrasies, autographic manipulation and temporal and spatial disjunctures, whilst creating aesthetic unity within difference.
Seamless = Dreamless

Posted 2006-11-29 10:55:54

In this my last posting I'd like to reflect on making 'Lie of the Land'.

On the first day in the studio I assembled a study which gave me a viable model for the series. it was an image of an American armaments company relocated to Baghdad's Sadr City. For the base pictures used in 'Lie of the Land' I have had to take whatever Google Earth offered for each location. They tend to employ photographs made with low raking sunlight, which give sharp delineation and a sense of space, but can look inelegant. Google is also pretty relaxed when it comes to stripping photographs together, often producing wildly fragmented perspectives (see for example 'Wall St'). The images characteristically fall off towards the edges, which doesn't trouble me. David Stent at Dispatx generously helped with the technical side of getting the rollovers to work, and I am grateful to him for this.

The notes I've entered into the work-in-progress section aren't really a record of work in progress, which has been a mute affair, but rather they form a parallel text. The point of intersection between my everyday life, and contemporary political and historical events, is the place at which I have in the past attempted to locate my work. I've noticed, however, a divergence occurring between these two strands whilst making this series, and I'm not sure whether this is a good thing or not. On the one hand the finished works are more directly political than I had anticipated, and on the other the work-in-progress section is more openly autobiographical.

During the 'nineties I thought that the dialectical politics of power and opposition, and the visual language associated with it, was over. We had entered an era in which all opposition appeared subsumed back into the prevailing monoculture. This was dispiriting, but by employing satirical strategies I register my disdain. Now the political consensus seems to be fragmenting again. The issues that have broken it are the invasion of Iraq and climate change. America's Neo-Cons and George W Bush are rapidly loosing credibility and power, and new formulations are beginning to emerge. Whether these will offer real alternatives remains to be seen.

My finished works tap into a reservoir of discontent with American foreign policy and corporate behaviour, and Britain's role as its sidekick. I use an old and basic model of montage which might be formulated A+B=C. It's the language John Heartfield developed and I'm surprised how useful it is under the present circumstances. By temperament I prefer more ambiguous and nuanced images, but I also recognise that an oblique approach would fail to capture this moment of opposition. Using the internet and working more like a political cartoonist, comment has rapidly followed on from events and I have avoided the long time delay associated with exhibiting pictures in art galleries. Like cartoons, most of the images are ephemeral, but a few might stand the test of time. The pictures I've made are direct and pithy.

Maybe because of this, in my artblog I am quite introspective, freely associating on the theme of 'improvised maps'. Memories, observations and dreams are trawled. I too have never been to America, and de Bry's imaginings resonate for me. Conflict and war are recurrent themes, whether between individuals, groups or nations. My stories concern space flight, soldiers, musicians, artists, and the warrior generation to which my parents belonged.

The picture above is one I rejected from the final series - it is of the US treasury building relocated to the Knesset complex in Jerusalem.

Over the four months I've been working on this series, I've been trying to find a particular map, but without success. It is an annotated road map of Norfolk which records two holidays I spent with my wife in the early 'nineties photographing rood screens in the parish churches of the county. These screens are amongst the few that survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation. The faces of the saints and Apostles, however, have been left gouged and hacked. My 'Loss of Face' series was the outcome of these journeys.

But the map reminds me of the glorious time we had travelling the single-track roads in an open-top Citroen 2CV, accompanied by the tetchy but critically astute Nikolaus Pevsner. We fancied that we could detect the presence of Mrs Pevsner, who apparently did the driving, and whether the great man had had a good lunch or not! My friend Charles had first alerted us to the wonder of these churches, and fixed up for us to stay at his mother's house on the coast. He had also kindly photocopied John Betjeman's homely account of the church's architecture for us. Well, by good fortune I came across the maps this weekend and offer a few fragments here.

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