North Was Here by Ellie Ga: To Draw Maps
I click the submit button, and the screen of my phone populates with a compass, subdivided into twelve sectors, populated with symbols for the planets and astrological signs, which are linked together by various blue and red lines. I tell him he has an ninth house stellium, and that has to do with travel, an intense desire to explore. Well, your moon is in Gemini so that explains why you’re being contrarian, I respond when he says he doesn’t relate to my prognosis. Honestly, it doesn’t make much sense to me either, but I don’t really know him that well so I soldier on, rattling off archetypes. I’m not exactly sure why I’m doing this, seems to fill the space, maybe just to connect.
The planets are just ciphers, I tell him. It’s all very Jungian, just a way for us to look inside ourselves and make sense of our relationship to others. No one at this table, in this pizza restaurant, is being terribly introspective. The planets slip through my fingers, which are so feeble, and I am left holding onto a smartphone with an arbitrary chart of symbols on its screen. As a critic, I feel as if it is my duty to interpret. As a friend, sometimes I need to shut up and not talk about astrology over pizza. I might actually find more significance in the patterns of bubbles in the cheese. If I look at the slice of pizza in front of me long enough, closely enough, I could discover things about myself which I have never known. Even more discoveries lay in the woodgrain of the table on which the pizza rests.
Ellie Ga spent five months on the Tara, a boat purposefully designed to drift within polar ice and collect scientific data, as the artist-in-residence. Her artist’s book North Was Here (Ugly Duckling Presse) is one of many artistic works resulting from time on the Tara, itself including a series of retrospective logs, drift drawings mapping the boat’s perceived trajectory, aerial images of projected walks taken on the ice, and a number of photographs varying widely in their intimacy and warmth. As an artifact, it initially seems incredibly bare, reducing an experience to the simplest of visual symbols and the tersest of prose. Upon close study, it becomes clear that there is much contained within North Was Here which does not demand detailed explication and which lay teeming under a cold, glacial surface. It is a product of her development of mythologies and symbols by which to interpret a seemingly vacant environment. Such barrenness, resulting in an elevated sensory attention to the mundane and a conjunction of the psychological and geographic, the immediate and the universal.
Ellie Ga’s relationship to the polar ice in which the Tara was confined is both that of the flâneuse (a word I admittedly hate to use on account of its overuse among intelligentsia and general quality of art jargon but will continue to do so regardless) and the anti-flâneuse. The day-to-day changes in the vistas for the crew of the Tara are negligible. She can wander no further than the periphery of the boat. She is terribly isolated from the media of modern life, exposed to little inclination that something exists beyond what she is immediately able to sense. Bijan Stephen wrote in the Paris Review that the flâneur “removes himself from the world while he stands astride its heart”; Ellie Ga picks apart the world, inventing for herself its own heart. She maps out her own metropolises and confronts their arcades. She gives arbitrary yet clearly meaningful names like Paris and Leningrad to landmarks such as pressure ridges. She names one such landmark Chaos, and it disappears. She introduces taxonomies for herself. Her drift is a far greater surrender of autonomy than any wandering parisian who considers himself to be an assimilated part of the urban environment. The traditional flâneur of Baudrillard and Benjamin is specific to his place; the (non-)place(s) Ellie Ga drifts through are far more tricky to define.
Peter Drum, in his essay “Aristotle’s Definition of Place and of Matter”, describes an Aristotelian conception of a vessel as “that which is moving” and place as “on the whole motionless”. It’s the “whatness”, not the “whereness” that defines such a relationship. One might conceive of a traditional boat, moving down a river--the river containing, externally immobile, and the boat in motion along with the river’s internal movements. The situation of the Tara subverts such a notion like a mathematician who harps that space and time are not such distinct concepts as we like to operate under. The Tara is still, relative to the ice in which it is trapped. Itis the place which is in motion, as opposed to the vessel. The concepts of vessel and the place converge, conventional landmarks are upheaved, and Ellie Ga, who is contained within this drifting vessel-place, is challenged with arriving at her own conceptions of where she is, identify constantly transforming landmarks, and create her own histories of tiny empires. The vessel becomes the center of the universe (at the very least for its crew), like a Ptolemeic, astrological conception of the galaxies. The polar ice breaks up, landmarks quickly disappear, along with the memories of them.
“At the beginning, north [never capitalized] was here,” she writes. “But it keeps changing.” The location of "north" (given its definition as the location of the magnetic pole) can seemingly be validated through scientific (sensory) techniques, yet through scientific techniques, it is determined that location of "north", even relative to other spacial landmarks, is drifting. That which determines our even our sense of direction is constantly in motion--we are left upheaved. “For me, now, the north is empty,” she writes. “Nothing there.” Emptiness is a thing unpopulated with symbols and identifiers. Yet even the notion of nothing has its symbols--how else may we conceive of something that can never be observed within an inherently sensory conception of reality. It is, however, of some comfort, to imagine a decontextualized nothing. Romantic even.
Location can only be expressed relatively. Always relative, it cannot be finitely known. Everything, if viewed under a powerful enough microscope, eventually collapses. Location, it seems, is perfectly arbitrary when you get down to it. Maps vary according to what we give attention to, what we are familiar with, and in turn shape how we perceive the world, and our place within it. So why even bother to create maps if they cannot fully model reality, if they are inhibited by change and by flaws in human perception? Because, it seems, we must--because of our mythos, our Eves who have bitten forbidden fruit. Because chaos gave birth to the gods, our totems to conceptualize the world. Ellie Ga’s study of the ice quickly becomes a study of human perception and knowledge.
I regret that I must defer to Kant, but it seems we must always defer to Kant when it comes to knowing. Space and time are a priori empty forms that determine how things appear to us, built into our mental framework. The very concept of location is dependent on an a priori intuition of space--nothing about the existence of space (and time) can be divined through the senses, but instead it must be intuited. Space, as it turns out, is somewhere in the psyche, residing unconceptualized until they have been made comprehensible by our methods and intuitions. So we draw maps.
“We need to validate our world because we are not sure that it exists.” We need to validate our psyches because we are not sure that we exist. To validate is to define, to set a boundary on, to prove. The validation line, as defined by Ellie Ga, is the furthest point you can confirm through direct senses alone. A photo is included in the book of a cluster of shovels staked into the snow. There is no delineation between snow and sky; shovels function as the only indicators of distance and perspective to the untrained eye: in a sense, nothing beyond the landmarks we shove into the ground. There is, of course, an intuitive understanding that there is something beyond what the mind can perceive, but we are so quick to dismiss that that which cannot be proven through the senses may as well not matter. We are so quick to forget how unstable the very notions of space and time are. “Our life here, our passing, everything is being erased behind us and even our memory is being erased as our world has gotten smaller and broken up." It sounds universal--as if to say that on the scale of humanity, our history is being erased through technology, ostensibly connecting us while driving wedges between us. One may think of their own, small upheavals. Our own landmarks which are broken up and shift aside as new points of reference emerge. Where are we anymore?
And then, the Tara is visited by a bird. “A bird is like a big plane.” A bird is a clock, a landmark by which to note the passing of time. A rarity in the sky. It’s a thing of wonder: where (among all the potential places which lie outside our immediate sensory abilities) is it headed to? What a totem of liberation from the boundaries of our own senses. How whimsical. That a bird is a connection to civilization, to the greater context of things, defines it in turn as indicator of isolation by signalling that there is in fact an outside world and we simply can’t perceive it. A bird is like a landmark for time. A bird is like a mathematician coming up with imaginary numbers to adjust our systems of modeling to the appearances of reality. A bird is like a reminder of ontological arguments. A bird is just another fucking totem.
The notion of the totem is not insignificant for Ellie Ga. In one iteration of her works resulting from her stay on The Tara, she created The Deck of Tara, a play on the notion of tarot cards. 52 images from the boat and the ice are assigned symbology and used as ciphers by which Ellie Ga divined some meaning. Do we not do something similar every day? With cues from fashions to interpret who a person may be? With the changing of the seasons? Superstitions do not emerge for no reason. We create maps to make sense of things all the time; we are always drawing up and revising maps, and superstitions are but another landmark we assign to our frame of reference. Must our landmarks be stable? May we have landmarks which drift? Misnomers and misunderstandings occur when language and symbology is not mutually agreed upon, resulting in different conceptualizations of space itself, and ourselves in turn. Tzeltal-speaking people (in Chiapas, Mexico), orientate themselves and objects in an "absolute" frame of reference, solely on axes of uphill-downhill (north-south) and transverse. They do not conceptualize notions like "left" and "behind"--such landmarks are meaningless, western superstitions. Maps vary according to attention. Orientation, nearness, distance--these are all concepts which are relative, a matter of individual impression more than a scientific quantity. To orientate oneself is to find a source of stability and solace rather than absolute comprehension. What use is knowing what is definite aside from the process of finding a secure object to latch onto?
I fold up my pizza and take a bite. I still think that ninth house stellium means something significant.