Jul 11, 2016

Five Points on Straight Lines

Wilmer Wilson IV

Huevo de Colon

Huevo de Colón in the Parque de San Jeronimo, Seville, Spain.

One of the hardest things to do is to travel in a straight line.

This is because material space is not primarily a natural phenomenon, but is naturalized through state legitimation as a resource. Resources were the primary impetus of the colonial projects of Europe, of which Christopher Columbus was a patriarch. The space of the globalized world is now colonized, marked up and fragmented into asymmetrical bits of politicized space whose lines discipline its inhabitants’ physical motion.

Michel de Certeau described riding an elevator to the top of the World Trade Centers in New York City, ascending above the experience of walking, as being “lifted out of the city’s grasp.”[1] As he was elevated up the straight vertical line into the viewpoint from which the straight lines of the city were readable, de Certeau saw that the geometric clarity of a city plan is concerned with its own clarity foremost rather than a walker’s immediate needs. The modern administrated state relies on having a legible domain, and straight lines are a vital tool for molding resources and bodies into information. His attribution of hands to the city is poignant: escaping from the street relieved him of their constant pushing, squeezing, and manipulating.

Domination manifests clearly in the architecture of public space. When inhabiting the geometric street, a pedestrian has no choice but to be constantly bombarded with interruptions in order to defer to the city’s logic of organization. The lethargic material of urban space regulates its inhabitants most bluntly: its roads, its buildings, its chain link and rebar all stop walkers in their tracks. Rejecting these parts of the city’s grasp is possible but requires steady resistance and great concentration of resources. Military forces and other molders of public and private material refer to techniques of spatial manipulation as “inverse geometry” or “operational architecture.”[2] They can dominate the material of the world to fit their needs, literally walking through walls, bending or raising, straightening or flattening material to their liking. The rapture of the straight line is reserved for architects, the wealthy, and state agents. Are these the same people who insisted to Columbus the Earth was flat?

To be oriented in a straight line is not always to be traveling in a straight line.

The oblique street connects a location of departure and a location of arrival. Though these points do not necessarily open a spatially straight path of travel, points phenomenologically gain the impression of a straight line by their repeated proximity to one another within a field of bodily experience. Sara Ahmed articulates an intertwined relationship between straight lines and rationality: “The lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion…depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition.”[3] In spite of the divergent directions of thought lines and motion lines that pedestrians hold in their body, the city must teach street-goers that there is no difference between the two. Its existence depends on this pedagogical imperative.

The dérive emerged in response to the spatial and experimental lines reified in urban space. In order to détourne the spectacular logic of work-to-home, home-to-work, the Situationists posited a method of intentional wandering that could unstraighten a pedestrian’s relationship to their points. Wandering employs indirection and vagueness rhetorically to counteract the entrenched rationality of the city plan. But as useful as it is for keeping divergent lines on the horizon, the dérive framework does not directly address the inescapability of the straight lines of material domination. Its critique stops short of the material level, instead working on lines of thought and their sedimented psychological histories.

But what if there was another way to unstraighten points within the confines of a straight walk, without the need for wandering?
Runo still

Runo Lagomarsino, More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors (still), 2012–2013, video, color, and sound, 6:18 minutes. Courtesy the artist; Nils Stærk, Copenhagen; and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo.

There is a straight, tree-lined path in the Parque de San Jeronimo in Seville, Spain that frames El nacimiento del hombre nuevo, also known as the Egg of Columbus. Though the path is unpaved, the park’s austerity is already a testament to the state’s formalization of the natural world. Parks emerge out of the European tradition of gardens, a form predicated upon the aristocracy’s holding of land and their desire to go outside while remaining in exclusive social strata. They cultivated a space for engaging with other garden occupants, a social promenade where garden-goers could “retreat from the household into private contemplation or conversation.”[4] The garden’s social function pivoted on its ability to complicate distinctions between interior and exterior; still, it had pronounced effects on the reification of dominant social dynamics.

Enclosed gardens have been, “since the Song of Songs, a metaphor for the female body, and at least since the rise of the courtly love tradition, the site of much courtship and flirtation.”[5] Containment and penetration are key to the gendered functioning of garden and park spaces. Aristocratic gardens soon stopped needing to provide flowers and fruit for their inhabitants to feel the same sensations of voluptuousness and control. The mere presentation of the world as a scenic route, the “voluptuous” or “wild” elements of an unstable environment reduced and tamed, encourages park visitors to enact their desire upon objects that “remain just that, objects.”[6] This is an age-old characteristic of gendered/raced/classed power in colonial history.

Like lover’s lanes in full view, parks engender erotic excess in their inhabitants. The biggest voyeur poring over these eroticized encounters in the Parque de San Jeronimo (and probably other parks too) is the lecherous Columbus. He is hearkening back to his own mythical conquest with his maps and looking straight into the future, to the many conquests to come.

To be traveling in a straight line is not always to be oriented in a straight line.

More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors (2012–2013) is a video recording of Runo Lagomarsino and his father walking up to the Egg of Columbus, pelting it with a carton’s worth of eggs, and retreating the way they came down an unbending park avenue. Yet their straight walk, though delineated and direct, starts unstraightening the insisted-upon path line. The raw eggs bear marks of illegitimacy; shrouded and concealed, they summon the broken contours of illegally trafficked goods. Contraband is constantly shifting around in oblique paths: around the body,around the bag. Its existence depends on its evasion of disciplinary devices (borders, eyes) while the host maintains the pretense of submission. The Lagomarsinos’ mere possession of illicit material turns their walk into a vector of transmission, an avenue by which tiny infectious agents penetrate the interior logic of a structure. Instead of functioning pedagogically, the road is remapped as a route of illicit behavior.

The title takes a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Map (1935), which is a meditation on borders, natural phenomena, and distance. It asks us to consider what defines the seemingly objective forms delineated on a map: are its lines dictated by the land or by the sea? Lagomarsino suggests that it is Columbus who is making the map, Columbus who gave the maps their rich fragments of egg yolk and bronze. The father and son’s union begins repairing the cracking action of political exile that thrives on fracturing social groups and resources. They use their own delicate lines to weave together a map made from massive, divided fragments of politicized geography.
A Colonial Marriage

“Ponce de Leon and Xandra Ibarra, a colonial marriage,” Xandra Ibarra and Daniel Bejar. Photo by Coco Fusco. Courtesy of the artist.

José Esteban Muñoz asserts that “[t]he key to queering evidence…is by suturing it to the concept of ephemera.”[7] The Lagomarsinos’ queer courtship with Columbus is but an ephemeral gesture made against a backdrop of pervasive coloniality. Their family history will be marked forever with the presence of fractured lineages. The current failure of decolonial efforts gives way to a colonial subjugation so utterly complete and penetrating that the racialized and gendered other remains perpetually fucked, argues the work of Xandra Ibarra.[8] In her photograph titled “a colonial marriage,” Ibarra poses topless on the beach with an impersonator of the Spanish conquistador Ponce de León.[9] Surrogate-Ponce has his possessive arm wrapped around her bare shoulder. Centuries after his death, his myth still draws a palpable enough line to be touched by and to create new lineages with. Similarly, the Lagomarsinos’ moment of illicit union is made possible by the larger-scale contamination of the colonial condition through father and son’s bloodline.

Yet to borrow a phrase from Diana Fuss, Lagomarsino’s direct walk down the path and Ibarra’s spectral consummation are both “miming masquerade” that “install a wedge between identification and imitation in [their] suggestion that not every imitative act harbors a secret or unconscious identification.”[10] Even as they are obliged to defer to the state-sanctioned straightness of history, material, and family lineage, the origin and destination points of both artists’ suggested paths retain their obliqueness. Both artists deliberately take up the tactical mimesis of straightness for the purpose of visualizing their disidentification with their own colonial domination. Theirs are the lines of motion sickness: lines of perceptually asynchronous cognition and movement amidst the physical compulsion of a contained body. Ibarra conjures the rocking motion of colonial ships and paternal hands as Lagomarsino regurgitates illicit matter onto a colonizer immemorial.

Wilmer Wilson IV is an interdisciplinary artist working in Philadelphia, PA.

[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 92.
[2] See Eyal Weizman, “The Art of War,” Frieze 99, May 6, 2006, accessed June 26, 2016 https://www.frieze.com/article/art-war.
[3] Sara Ahmed, “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology” in GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 12, number 4 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006), 554.
[4] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 87.
[5] Ibid, 87.
[6] Darian Leader, quoted in Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker & The Modern Surface (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 65.
[7] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 65.
[8] Xandra Ibarra, interviewed by Dorothy Santos, “Reading Menstrual Rags Like Rorschach Tests” in Hyperallergic, November 11, 2015, accessed June 26, 2016. http://hyperallergic.com/252940/reading-menstrual-rags-like-rorschach-tests/.
[9] Xandra Ibarra, “Photo by Coco Fusco, Ponce de Leon and Xandra Ibarra, a colonial marriage,” accessed June 26, 2016 http://www.lachicaboom.com/photo-by-coco-fusco-ponce-de-leon-and-xandra/.
[10] Diana Fuss, quoted in Uri McMillan, Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 173–174.