A Performance Series

WHEN IS AN ARTIST NOT AN ARTIST?

30 Days
Two anonymous cartographers
30 days prior to the closing of the New Life Berlin festival.

The two cartographers behind the 30 Days project casually make their way across a courtyard, between two flat roofed buildings and back towards the main road. Over the disused railway track opposite, they were told by the previous gallery’s assistant, a row of small art spaces inhabit the glass-fronted elevation of another vast converted industrial building. Shadowing them, I enjoy this sense of discovery and the unknown route ahead – a process invariably more interesting than much of the work on show.

Photographs and notes are taken upon entering the galleries, which are assessed according to a scale known only to the cartographers. Acting as anonymous practitioners, these cartographers aim to infiltrate and subvert Berlin’s local art networks and create, over thirty days, an alternative map of the city’s artistic landscape, which can then be used and added to by future visitors. Both cartographers originate from the USA, and through their position as relative outsiders, they also aim to connect organisations by pairing up the mapped spaces and encouraging them to collaborate on a future project. These pairs would not normally work together – perhaps because of preconceptions about each other’s work, different commercial agendas, or lack of inclination to direct resources towards small, experimental projects. The results of the cartographers’ activities are one Google map of locations and two collections of textual or image based information that exist online via Wooloo.org. The resulting institutional collaborations will be followed up by the cartographers at a later date.

The cartographers admit that their categorisation of the galleries is subjective, and explain that any map-maker’s cultural background influences the maps that they produce. Talking to these map makers, it is clear that they are highly educated art practitioners who have de-classified themselves as artists in favour of the title ‘cartographer’. However, they say they aim to tread lightly over their chosen terrain, creating altered perspectives and relations amongst its potential visitors or inhabitants, whilst maintaining a critical distance and leaving no trace of their presence. Referring to the project in cartographic terms is therefore problematic because, by nature, the traditional cartographer stamps their ground a little, forming a subjective overview of place that is open to misinterpretation or generalisation. Cartography produces space, defining identities through difference. The inhabitants of the landscape being mapped (in this case, artists/professionals/galleries) then locate themselves within these identities, by which they define the outsider. Therefore, if the 30 Days online site and maps are to gain the level of interest and visibility that their creators aim for, the cartographers have the potential to mark their influence on the identity and boundaries of the Berlin art scene.

Another subjective element of this project is the classification of artistic activity. When do we cease to define activity as artistic – when working artists lose physical proximity to each other? When they all go out for a coffee? Perhaps the cartographers are being knowingly playful with the elusive nature of the artistic act, but if so, this could be reflected more in their results. In fact, the map shows established galleries for the most part and a lack of artist-led initiatives, studio groups, temporary spaces, events or individual artists’ activities. This is probably because less formal additions would be harder to fix geographically, which would interfere with the easy use of the maps as guides.

But the maps’ status as guides is also in doubt. In order to dispel the fixedness of the cartographers’ definitions, it is crucial that the maps can be adjusted by future visitors. Therefore, the project’s priority must be to provide a model for visitor re-structructuring (by adapting the original results online or creating a new map), rather than to create a definitive guide. However, the maps need to be visually clear and accessible to enable visitors to contribute. Although one of these maps is available through Google search, most of the information is stored on Wooloo.org with no direct link from the homepage (though this may be out of the cartographers’ hands), and it is also unclear how the maps could be adapted. The mapped spaces are presented through an inviting visual display, yet remain separate and difficult to understand in relation to one another. Without clear links given between them, they are rendered isolated, cut off from the flow of movement in-between which defines them as destinations.

On a practical level, the artists claim that adopting the title of cartographer allows them more freedom to work within the networks they are navigating, which suggests the art institutions they visit may treat artists using ’non-art’ processes more suspiciously than their professional counterparts. Perhaps as artists have historically taken the institutional framework of their working environment as subject for analysis, they seem likely to have a more complex critical agenda, and as they don’t represent the views of a corporate employer, artists are allowed a more critical position than other professionals. The re-positioning of roles also denies any distinction between the artists’ work and that of other practitioners and professionals in whose fields they may be working; when acting as artists, the cartographic process may be seen as a tool in the realisation of an artistic idea, but when acting as cartographers, the emphasis shifts to the product of their activities – the map itself. This role play also enables potential audiences to engage with the maps outside of an artistic context, which, the cartographers assume, would only complicate the situation. By enforcing the cartographic status of the project, its members make sure that the map readers are simply reading maps, and not partaking in a work of art.

This cloaking of the artist has implications within the network of relations existing between artists, art institutions, audiences and publics. As the New Life Berlin festival has exemplified, many artists position themselves in diverse roles, employing processes traditionally associated with other areas of study or professional work. Shouldn’t the artist’s role be declared in order to promote contemporary art practice as multi-faceted and inter-disciplinary? In fact, New Life Berlin was structured to promote just this kind of interdisciplinarity, among its communities of artists and participants. Also, though the artists have masked the project’s status as a work of art, the project is dependent on the artistic context of this festival for its promotion and dissemination, and so 30 Days’ separation from the art world is only fleeting.

Perhaps then, alternatively, the cartographers’ choice not to be deemed artists within the festival’s publicity material offers a critique of some participatory and interactive projects, whose claims of shifting and merging the roles of the artist and audience are unfounded. In denying the role of the artist the cartographers suggest that, as artists, the distinctions will always remain.

For now the project stands on ambiguous ground. Much like the dried out areas of land that interrupt the sprawl of Berlin’s urban system, the maps’ function is unclear. They are available for use, yet the user has an uncertain amount of freedom within them and relies on mediation for access. When the festival ends, and the cartographers remove themselves from the physical location of Berlin, the map they are offering will show its full subversive potential.

Charlotte A. Morgan

Charlotte A. Morgan is an artist and writer currently co-developing and curating Transit Projects, a mobile project space based in Sheffield UK and online. charlotte.anne.morgan@googlemail.com

Please only reproduce this text with permission from the author and Open Dialogues. opendialogues@gmail.com

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