‘Placing art at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’: Art and the production of geographical knowledge.

by Dr Harriet Hawkins AHRC Research Fellow, School of Geography, University of Exeter

‘A combination of the artist and the man of science is rare’ wrote Sir Arthur Shipley F.R.S. of the explorer Dr Edward Wilson, a talented artist and scientist, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and member of Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. However, as Shipley goes onto acknowledge, the combination is maybe ‘not as rare as one is apt to think’. Wilson, a skilled scientist and accomplished artist, who made studies of the work of John Ruskin and J.W.M. Turner, was one of a number of ‘travelling artists’ who accompanied explorers, as well as other seaman, surveyors and geographers who developed their own artistic practices of varying kinds.

Motherland

Inspired by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) the new works by Agnès Poitevin-Navarre and Susan Stockwell bring into focus the relationship between art and geography and offer an aesthetic contribution to wider debates around the ‘cultures of exploration’ and the production of geographical knowledge. The site specific works direct attention to the rich visual cultures of exploration found in the Society’s archives; from large landscape paintings to notebooks full of incidental sketches; coastline charts designed to aid navigation; carefully detailed drawings of botanical specimens made in situ; and, ornately rendered atlases. Since its foundation in 1830, the Society has acted to disseminate geographical information around the globe and helped to shape our geographical imaginations. Its archives have long played a key role in geographical endeavour. So it is appropriate that in the wake of the Society’s public opening of its archives through the ‘Unlocking the Archives’ programme (2004) the place of artistic practices in the development of geographical knowledge be explored, in part, through artistic production itself. An analysis of the art works knits together historical geographies of art and exploration with contemporary relations between artistic practices and geography, opening up questions of the role of art in experiencing and engaging with the world. In exploring these ideas, this exhibition sits alongside the rich interdisciplinary body of work that has examined the production of geographical knowledge, the historical geographies of art, and the intersection of projects of art and empire. As with this body of scholarship, the critical potential of this exhibition is not just in ‘recovering’ the place of art in disciplinary histories but also in the ways in which these artworks disturb and so enrich our understandings of the production of geographical knowledge.

 

ARTS OF EXPLORATION

From a distance, Poitevin-Navarre’s wall map the Proustian Map of London (Land of Achievement) (2010) reproduces London’s recognisable outline clearly bisected by the Thames. Up close though, the capital is known through a series of achievements and emotions, territory is configured through a plotting of life-courses and personal milestones. Poitevin-Navarre collected her ‘data’ through questionnaires, surveying London residents, asking them, following Proust’s ‘party game’, ‘what is your greatest achievement?’, ‘what is the most important lesson life has taught you?’ The answers, plotted according to respondents’ postcodes, map ‘humanistic’ landscapes of emotional relations and the ‘everyday’ personal achievements of lives lived. Here the city is projected through work, family and social life, and these personal and subjective ways of knowing and being in the world are folded with the grammars of cartography and their implication of empirical and imperial ‘habits of vision’. The information in the city’s northern quarters, high on the wall map, can only be accessed through the use of binoculars. This requires from the viewer a slow scanning of territory, replicating those visual traditions of the ‘gaze’ with its implications of ‘mastery’ and of the secure ‘view point’ of the ‘scientific observer’ who is assured of his capacity to see the other with a wholly objective and neutral gaze.

The history of art and geography can be understood as a similar enmeshing of different ways of knowing the world. The Society’s archives offer a rich visual culture of exploration which presents fused ways of knowing formed through the circulation of people, objects, ideas and aesthetics at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’. From the late 17th century, ‘the practical value of drawing for recording information became widely accepted’. The Admiralty, valuing graphic over written representations for navigational purposes, began to teach cartography and drawing enabling ordinary seaman to ‘record coastlines, harbours, fortifications and topographic details’ accurately and efficiently. Such sketch surveys could compensate for a lack of precise measurements, especially where access and direct survey was either physically problematic or politically sensitive. Even with the advent of more accurate charts, sketching remained a valued skill, recognised to ‘sharpen the sight’ and often formed part of a sailors’ more personal record of the voyage.

The emergence of the ‘travelling artist’, with the voyages of Captain Cook’s Endeavour from 1769, saw professional artists accompanying explorers, ‘for the express purpose of supplying the unavoidable imperfections of written accounts, by enabling us to preserve and to bring home such drawings of the most memorable scenes of our transactions.’ Before this time European artists largely were not encouraged to look beyond Europe, thus two and a half centuries of European colonisation, exploration and exploitation of the Americas and the Indies went largely without visual record. However, from Cook’s voyages onwards artists’ depictions were an important part of the growing geographical knowledge about the world. Art, ‘in the service of science and travel’ had many functions, from the documentary to the inventory, it filled ‘gaps’ in geographical knowledge and was central to the geographical imagination of the ever-expanding known world, equally though it sensationalised world exploration, often helping to raise funds for further expeditions.

Filters Series

As artists and scientists – botanists, geographers, geologists and meteorologists – worked in increasingly close proximity on expeditions, they came together around shared sites of study and common fields of interest. This interchange of knowledge situated artistic practice within the broader 18th century inventorying of the world, forging Alexander Von Humbolt’s ‘poetics of science’, enfolding aesthetic, political and scientific goals and observations into an apparently integrated whole. Artists’ representations of coasts and populations of plants, animals and peoples made ‘on the spot’ were valued for their ‘authentic’ mimetic nature, and location-specific production. Such ‘true’ knowledge of the ‘natural world’ produced through field observation became part of the bank of measurements, samples and specimens through which distant places came to be known. These travelling artists at times had to balance the competing needs of colonial authorities and scientific interests, such that visual inventories were often as much about scientific discovery as about fantasies of dominance and oppression. There was also a meeting of ‘art as information’ and ‘art as taste’, artists’ observation practices rarely stood apart from art historical traditions, and ultra-realist modes of image making often had to be negotiated alongside the techniques and aesthetics of European artistic training. Topographic ‘views’, more often associated with surveying and cartography, fused with European landscape aesthetics – the picturesque, the sublime – to form ‘visions’ of tropics and other distant lands characterised by rich blends of observation, iconography and imagination. These artistic images cannot be simply read then as a function of the export of European training and expertise, rendering foreign lands ‘known’ through the aesthetic regimes of ‘home’, but bear the ‘oblique stamp of indigenous actions, desires and agency’. This process disturbs any clear separation of ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ with art works forming ‘intermediaries between the new generation of artists working on the spot and the metropolitan areas of expertise, both experimenting with and diffusing new views of distant places’.

What then of contemporary geography’s engagements with artistic practices? Whilst geography is no longer exclusively a project of mapping and charting distant lands or of inventorying the world, ways of knowing and experiencing space, place and landscape still sit central to the discipline. As Poitevin-Navarre’s and Stockwell’s works’ suggest, artistic practice has much to contribute. Indeed, over the last few decades there has been a sustained relationship between art and geography around theories of space and place and shared practices such as mapping. What ties together these contemporary engagements of artists and geographers, the works in The Creative Compass and those more historical engagements of art and geography is firstly, an appreciation of the potential that blending knowledge, skills and practices can bring to our ways of understanding the world. Secondly, there is also arts’ ability to engage with the, at times, less known territories of everyday and intimate geographies. For geographers, artistic practices offer ways of accessing emotional worlds and engaging questions of subjectivity and identity and experiences of place that might otherwise slip past less humanistic ways of knowing. The Proustian Map of London, for example folds together a set of cartographic practices and techniques of the gaze with the mapping of an internal landscape of personal knowledge and often private achievement – having children, developing a business, being happy. These personal and felt geographies are however, not only focused on individual experience. Also, Stockwell’s elaborate money maps develop interwoven terrains of the worldly and the intimate. Their contentious juxtapositions of territory and currency frame the geographies of colonialism, contemporary imperial projects and global shifts in wealth and power. However, her use of ribbons and embroidery ensures that the domestic sphere across which these issues play out is firmly stitched into the fabric of the geopolitical. These new artworks draw then on vocabularies of geography and the grammars of cartography to focus on the exploration of subjectivity and identity and the domestic terrain, taking care however, to knit these explorations of the intimate and proximate together with more worldly geographies.

 

KNOWLEDGE IN THE MAKING

From the sails of Stockwell’s Empire Builders (2010), Stockwell’s collaboration with Michael Roberts, the faces of Cook, Drake, Raleigh, Livingstone and Cabot, among other renowned explorers, gaze out across the gallery. The title of the piece and its inspiration came from a poster Stockwell found which depicted these ‘Empire Builders’, the poster was part of the Empire Marketing Board’s project to promote inter-Empire trade, encouraging the British to ‘buy Empire’ and by implication to ‘buy into’ Empire. Whilst in the poster the faces serve to establish the historical pedigree of empire and ‘geographies paternal lines of descent’ within the exhibition these explorer-heroes are resituated amidst an enlivened account of exploration which elaborates on where and how geographical knowledge is produced.

Nearby these figures, Poitevin-Navarre has installed X&Y mapping her genetic heritage across superimposed projections of two hemispheres. The projections were inspired by her engagement with the Society’s cartographic archives, in particular Guillaume Delisle’s Map of hemisphere meridional and septentrional of 1714 and Phillippe Buache’s Map of the globe centered on the north pole and superimposed on the south pole, Bauche was Delise’s son-in-law and pupil. What drew Poitevin-Navarre to these two maps was their sense of the instability and contingency of the practice of mapping. Delisle, a French cartographer, was unsure as to who, Gallego or Dudley, had the correct coordinates of the Isles of Solomon, so he recorded them in two locations, these locations form two of the markers on Poitevin-Navarre’s wooden map. Whilst on Buache’s map the globe has been imagined as transparent, allowing an appreciation of the curve of the earth as you see both North America curves towards the North Pole and South America towards the South Pole. One of the functions of scientific texts like maps is ‘to obscure the work involved in the production of knowledge in order to render such knowledge objective’. However, the pieces made for The Creative Compass help to situate such ‘perspectiveless’ knowledge as emerging from multiple practices, culture encounters, experiences and exchanges that are embodied, and materially and socially conditioned.

In their reflections on working in the Society’s archive both Poitevin-Navarre and Stockwell emphasise the importance of the objects of exploration they found there. The equipment and ephemera that were such an important part of the expeditions and their reportage, from Livingstone’s compass and the East-African slave chains he used to show in his anti-slavery talks, to Mary Kingsleys’ hat and her photographs. Influenced by her engagements with the material cultures of exploration Poitevin-Navarre searched out and arranged a series of measuring devices, rules and gauges in one of the Society’s display cases to form the piece Collection of Measuring Objects and Books. Beneath glass, fixed and framed by the case, the aestheticisation of these objects suspends but simultaneously reinforces their function, affirming the vital place of such tools in the geographical trades of surveying and cartography. The presence of these tools reminds us that knowing the world is not the sole achievement of singular, often, male figures but rather such knowledge is a practiced co-production, involving other people and objects in its development.

Also situated close to the male faces of Empire Builders are two dresses by Stockwell, Colonial Dress (2009) and Money Dress (2010). These are made from stitched together maps and bank notes respectively and place centre stage the role of the practices and experiences of women within the development of geographical knowledge. Colonial Dress made from maps that have been stitched and glued into the shape of a twenties style dress is based on a map of the British Empire from the 1920s in which occupied territories where picked out in pink. Money Dress (2010) fabricated from notes, many bearing the heads of female monarchs, is styled after the mid to late 19th century dresses worn by female explorers such as Katherine Routledge and Isabella Bird. In its form, the dress inserts the embodied practices and sensuous dispositions of the explorer back into the narratives of geographical knowledge production. Whilst the dress might look confining and restrictive, modifications made to the sleeves and the ‘losing of the fashionable bustle and heavy material enabled women to move with relative ease in these forms of explorers dresses.

Scholars have argued that many histories of geography tell of a discipline that ‘what ever it was, was almost always done by men’. Many of the works in The Creative Compass form aesthetic responses to those arguments for the need to recognise the difference that gender makes to both the production of geographical knowledge and to the project of empire. Stockwell’s dress pieces, displayed alongside Empire Builders and the other pieces in the exhibition, serve as a reminder of the ‘complex locations’ of women within the spaces of empire and of geography. They do more though than simply add a category ‘women’ into existing stories, rather they also question what may be fixed ideas of the impact of gender on the development of geography as a discipline.

Constructing the clothed body from territorial representations Stockwell’s works recall discourses of feminised nature and territory, and evoke narratives of the ‘mother-land’. We are reminded here of the gendered power relations of the map and the gaze, worlds were to be ‘conquered’ and to be ‘penetrated’, activities undertaken by men, lands often imagined and described as female. As the lord-ofall-he-surveyed ‘explorer-man paints/ possess newly unveiled landscape-women’. Equally however in the symbolic ‘giving over of territory’ to the female form Stockwell is inserting ‘women’ firmly into the imperial project as monarch and as explorer, recalling the empowering function of exploration for many 19th century women. Colonialism, as a power structure founded on race rather than sex, gave white women representational power, and being-away from home liberated many female explorers. Exploration practice became for some a form of personal empowerment, their exploration being less one of external geographies and more a discovery of self and a realisation of potential away from the restrictions of pre-suffrage Britain. Stockwell’s favouring of dress forms and so called ‘female’ techniques and materials, working with ribbon, embroidery, folding and quilting, set geopolitical debates of colonial histories, projects of exploration and present day imperialism within a new landscape. Through her pieces these issues are worked across the ‘feminine’ terrain of the home and domestic sphere, reminding us of the spaces and places across which the impacts of such worldly debates are often played out.

Lachana Reading

If Stockwell’s ‘faceless’ dress forms suggested the collective experiences of women (albeit occupying different positions), Poitevin-Navarre’s piece Fellow Artists/ Fellow Muses (2010) explores individual lives, echoing the biographical practices of recent feminist scholars of the history of geography. Fellow Artists was inspired by the Society’s medal tables, inscribed in gold paint in the building’s old entranceway. Musing around the word ‘Fellow’, referring to the Society’s membership, Poitevin-Navarre’s work continues her exploration of personal achievement, interweaving the marginal positions of female explorers with those of female artists. Using the coordinates of their exhibitions, she traces the ‘geobiographies’ of herself and seven ‘fellow’ female artists whom she has worked with or who have inspired her. Their ‘embodied genealogies’ are implicated through a lock of their hair mounted on a paint brush handle, referencing both traditions of personal keepsakes as well as contemporary narratives of DNA testing in her other work. The ethnographical approach Poitevin-Navarre has adopted to this and previous works, echoes the ‘social exploration’ that is understood as central to specifically ‘women’s ways of knowing’ often associated with female explorers and travellers, as distinct from a masculine ‘scientific’ geography. Whilst in the 19th century the subjective forms of knowledge which women claimed as their contribution to geography was systematically excluded from the realm of a ‘scientific’ geography, today such ethnographic and participatory techniques are much prized by the discipline, as situated, responsive and personal accounts together with poetic observances become privileged ways of accessing and engaging with research ‘subjects’.

 

CONCLUSION

The works in The Creative Compass speak eloquently of the relationship between art and geography both past and present. The exhibition develops the role of art as part of blended knowledge and points towards the potential of art to contribute to the contemporary geographical project of more personal and subjective ways of knowing intertwined selves and worlds. As site-specific works engaging with the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) it is perhaps inevitable that Stockwell’s and Poitevin-Navarre’s pieces respond to the aesthetics of empire and exploration. Displaying the works at the Society situates them as an aesthetic complement to the feminist histories of geography and to the analysis of the ‘cultures of exploration’, those material, intellectual, discursive and embodied practices and experiences through which geographical knowledge is co-produced. More then than a recovery of the place of art within geography’s understandings of space, place and landscape, artistic practice provides a means through which to unsettle the basis upon which we know. In their contribution to such broader projects these works point towards the critical potential of artistic practice within geographical scholarship, a critical potential that serves to refocus attention on accepted practices and techniques and that reframes our ways of knowing and being. In short, mapping more intimate and proximate worlds to allow us to better connect with geographies that lie beyond ourselves.

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