The "crisis of representation" is not something that happened to representation when it got old and worn out; nor was it the scale of the moral catastrophes of the twentieth century that brought representation to the paroxysm of the "unrepresentable". The crisis was always already present in representation itself. It was Plato who first theorized and capitalized on what he saw as the discontinuity -- the ontological discontinuity, a discontinuity of being and not merely of logic -- between art and reality. He famously dramatized this discontinuity in his critique of what he called "mimesis" because, he worried, it had the capacity to conceal its own existence, at least to the eyes of the unaware: representation could look, for all the world, like the real thing, which would have baneful consequences for the established order of which he was such a staunch defender. Since there is no logical way of either ensuring a correspondance, or proving a discontinuity, between art and reality, between representation and the represented, Plato fell back on the stratifed social hierarchies of his world to enforce that discontinuity. In today's terms, we might say that Plato used an "institutional argument." The ontological difference between mimetic art and ordinary pieces of reality could only be upheld by an institutional frame -- in Plato's case, the famous three-tiered arrangement of the cosmos (ideas of things, known only to philosophers; things themselves, built by artisans; and last as well as least, representations of things -- the lowly imitations made by artists).
2500 years of institutional theory is more than enough
Now to suggest Plato used an "institutional frame" is a bit provocative, because contemporary institutional theory -- the hegemonic theory of art today, embodied in the conceptual architecture of the mainstream artworld -- sees itself as having definitively refuted Plato's conception of art as imitation. Arthur Danto, George Dickie, Nelson Goodman and other protagonists of institutional theory have sought to develop a theory of art that accommodates the now widespread non-mimetic art practices of the twentieth-century avant-gardes as no less valid than representational works. Yet, in order to do so, these thinkers have needed to distinguish such non-mimetic works (readymades, or aided readymades) from what Arthur Danto likes to call "mere real things." And here they find them back at square one, in the unlikely company of Plato. For nothing distinguishes these "artistic" practices, these objects, these actions from their "real" counterparts, except the institutional frame (an "artworld" of sorts) that supports and validates their claim to be art. The discontinuity, then, between them and their real "other" can only be... ontological. In the absence of an institutionally guaranteed framing device, they would not be art at all. In this one respect at least, institutional theory remains in the thrall of Platonic doctrine. Which accounts for the often-remarked insistance in the work of Arthur Danto on art's ontological separation from the real. By this measure, the long-standing ambition of the mimetic artist to deflect the Platonic indictment of art by closing the gap between art and reality is not only misconceived, but futile: "However much a picture of something may look like what it is of," Danto writes, "it remains an entity of an ontologically distinct order, even if what it is of is a picture." As Danto sees it, the very possibility of art after Duchamp depends upon NOT bridging that gap, through either mimetic or modernist means.
Of course Danto has no truck with Plato's theory of art as mimesis; but if anything, this only radicalizes his insistance on art's ontological discontinuity from reality. He begins his book, What Philosophy Is, with a commentary on a passage about mapping he recalls from a novel by Lewis Carroll. The characters, in this philosophical tale, are talking about maps; specifically, about the largest-scale map that would be useful. Once the maps they had produced reached a certain scale, approaching or even corresponding to the territory itself, Danto relates, they became useless as maps. Danto's conclusion is this: the whole point of maps, and their use value, is to be other than what they represent; he adds that it is not a criticism of a map to say that New York doesn't really look like a dot.
At least two things are noteworthy about this passage. Firstly, that the discontinuity here is not so much based on representation (as it has been for so much of history) as on scale. Essentially, by this token, a full-scale map is not a map at all. And secondly, the passage that Danto "remembers" from Lewis Carroll, and which he references to frame his own mapping project of philosophy, simply does not exist. Danto remembers something that is nowhere to be found, except in his recollection of it...
The passage to which Danto is obviously (albeit misleadingly) referring, from Carroll's 1893 novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, is quite different. Although Danto's creative reconstruction enables him to make a strategic philosophical point, Carroll's version makes a far more incisive and far-reaching one. Before looking at it more closely, let us also recall that it is often thought to have been Jorge Luis Borges who first introduced the paradox of the full-scale map, in his pithy one-paragraph parable, "On Exactitude in Science," written in 1960. Borges' text was surely inspired by Carroll's, written more than a half century earlier, but stops short of what is undoubtedly Carroll's most striking insight, which occurs in the course of an impromptu conversation between the outlandish, even otherworldly Mein Herr, and the British narrator:
“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
"Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."
Notorious for creating tales full of mesmerizing warps in the fabric of space and time, Carroll is here playing with fundamental assumptions about representation: its role as surrogate, its status as an abstraction, and its use as a convention that references the real to which it is subordinated. The parable deserves a very close reading. Carroll's map, replaceable as it is by the territory it surveys, raises questions about what happens to representation when, at its limit, it resembles its subject so closely as to confound the distinction between what is real and what is not. In this case, the representation not only refuses to be subordinate to its subject but it is also interchangeable with it, and even superior, as we are slyly told. The fact that the complaint against the mapping project came from the farmers -- from the perspective of political ecology, let's say -- is also telling. Cartography tends to see itself as the ultimate outreach of the Enlightenment project, drawing attention to that which is suffering from a lack of it by shedding light on it. Yet as the farmers point out, this white dream of enlightenment has a dark side, as every representation must. Every light-shedding device will also cast shadow; and a map (or any representation) is also a light-occluding device. Ultimately, though, Carroll comes to the exact opposite conclusion than that remembered by Arthur Danto: the ontological discontinuity between map and territory disappears when the territory is made to function as its own map. This is highly important in an era where so-called "cognitive mapping" practices have become so widespread. And it is in this respect that Carroll's story can shed some light on many contemporary artistic practices which have in effect ramped up their scale to that of 1:1.
One can scarcely have failed to notice that an increasing number of practices are now operating on the same scale as what they are grappling with, both in time and in space, refusing both a representational paradigm and a reduced-scale regime. They are both what they are, and propositions of what they are. They use, as it were, the land as its own map. What do 1:1 practices look like? Well they don't look like anything other than what they also are; they certainly don't look like art. Perhaps if one were for some reason determined to continue the Platonic-institutional legacy, one might describe these practices as being positively "redundant," as enacting a function already fulfilled by something else -- as having, in other words, a "double ontology." Both whatever they are (libraries, archives, symposia, whatever) and artistic propositions of whatever they are. But this seems, in many instances, precisely what they are not about -- just exactly what they are seeking to escape from. Even resisting ideological and institutional capture as defanged representation does not quite describe the full thrust of these projects. They seem to be seeking to escape performative and ontological capture as art altogether. It is certainly possible to describe them as having a double ontology; but it seems more closely in keeping with their self-understanding to argue that this is not an ontological issue at all, but rather a question of the extent to which they are informed by a certain coefficient of art. Informed by artistic self-understanding, not framed as art.
This is all a bit abstract, so let's take a handful of examples of practices or experiments on this 1:1 scale from around the world to see how they function with respect to a new politics of memory, seeking to deal with memory as a dimension of the historical present.
Let's start with Beirut-based conceptualist Walid Raad's Atlas Group Archive. It is, as its website states, an historigraphical research institute devoted to the study of the Lebanese civil wars. Using unconventional methodologies, perhaps, and particularly using fiction as an heuristic tool in a situation where access to "facts" is politically impossible and where authentic documents have been "disappeared", the Group investigates found, authored or produced documents, doing so on the full scale. This is a research project, albeit one whose self-understanding is grounded in art.
Or take Meschac Gaba's wonderful, and necessary, Museum of Contemporary African Art. Drawing on the work of Marcel Broodthaers, Philippe Thomas and others, Gaba creates a real museum as a way of performing an unrepresentable reality: contemporary African art -- and does so as a conceptual art project. Contemporary African art, whatever it might be, is without a memory because without a present. Meschac's proposition is not the content but the frame. In one respect a fictional institution in a real landscape, Meschac creates a jarring effect as these ontological landscapes collide.
Or the journal Third Text. One need never know that Third Text was conceived by founding editor Rasheed Araeen as a full-fledged collective conceptual art work -- indeed, most of the contributors and readers have never had any reason to suppose it is, since nothing about it is the slightest bit "arty" nor would it change in any way were it not an artistic proposition. Yet something about it changes when we learn it is. And indeed, historically, it was a vehicle devised both to write the history (and create the memory) of excluded art practices, and to be an instantiation of those practices.
Or take the Bombay-based online video archive pad.ma. It is an extensive, and extensively annotated, film archive on the internet, focusing particularly on film and video footage dealing with the Kashmiri conflict and other socio-political struggles in the Indian subcontinent. It is absolutely useful for what it is, but like these other examples, is also an artistic proposition. Not a scaled-down representation of an idea, but a full-scale, 1:1 instantiation. Forum Lentgeng's enormous book piracy project (more than 6000 volumes, translated, copied, printed and distributed in Indonesian language to libraries and cultural workers) or the now massive aaaaaarg.org archive are comparable examples of, as it were, using the "land as its own map."
Or the recent project of Rotterdam based artist Jonas Staal, who in the framework of the Berlin Biennale developed a project called the "New World Summit", whereby he invited members or legal representatives of all political organizations currently on the European Union's list of "terrorist organizations" (from the FARC to the ETA, Al Qaida to Touareg People's Liberation Front...) to come and present their historical cases in a sort of league-of-nations style forum for the excluded. Though an ambitious political project, which Staal carried out, it paradoxically involved using art's exceptional ontological status as a way of circumventing censorship issues (flags which are otherwise forbidden in German public space were allowed, as they were deemed part of a colour scheme of an "artwork"). Though an imperfect example, Staal's project seems to share something of art's contemporary desire for upscaling and inviting itself into the real.
One last example, one amongst so many more, that of Buenos Aires-based Hugo Vidal's "insertions". As an artist, Vidal is particularly attentive to what we might call "free" yet "subaltern" signifiers" in public space -- words, phrases, names, signs of all kinds that escape from their primary finality to disclose other contextual meanings. Vidal "tweaks" these free signifiers to push their primary purpose toward the shadows and nudge a different, political, meaning to the fore, allowing as it were the subaltern to speak. To fight what has rightly been called the "third disappearance" of activist Julio Lopez (called as a witness against perpetrators of the genocide under the Argentinian dictorship, Lopez was "disappeared" despite an ostensible return to democracy), Vidal has made it his business to keep Lopez's name alive until such time as his whereabouts, and his fate, are made public knowledge. But how? By making use of the signifying apparatus of everyday commerce, making the subaltern verbal readymades of the everyday speak what has been collectively repressed. Taking the well-known LOPEZ brand of wine as his support, the artist surreptitiously stamps a subtle demand onto bottles on supermarket shelves. "Apparicion con vida de Julio" reads the stamp, the brandname completing the demand with the surname LOPEZ. The action becomes a politically charged injection of artistic competence (in the form of an exigency) into the public sphere. Its deliberately imparied coefficient of artistic visibility in no way impairs its coefficient of art (as Duchamp might say) and allows it to escape from the debilitating assignment to the ontology of art.
Now institutional theory would no doubt seek to describe some of these practices as founded on "overidentification": not so much becoming what they claim as drawing critical attention by ironically pretending to be something they are clearly not. Over-identification logic does provide insight into normalizing processes, but ultimately it seeks to domesticate art's would-be subversive power to shore up the power of the institutions that are over-identified with... It is really to sell these projects short to frame them in as examples of overidentification. Something more interesting is at work here.
These projects are not afraid of representation -- indeed they have regular recourse to it. But as artistic strategies, they cannot be understood under the auspices of representation. Their salient characteristic seems to be the scale on which they operate. Nor are these projects ideal instances of some sort of 1:1 aesthetics. I cite them largely because of their disparity. One could be forgiven for seeing no commonality at all between them, other than their emergence in our contemporary moment. Their respective ways of addressing memory in the historical present are very different. But what I see as a common thread is a shared desire to escape ontological capture as "just art" and a perhaps still unarticulated will to ramp up their scale of operations to the 1:1.
This may be a way to renegotiate the assymetrical relationship between art and memory. Though both are constructs, art long focused on shaping and reshaping memory's matrix-like status -- in other words, art stemmed from memory, yet somehow managed to scale memory down and thereby to hold it at a distance. The practices I have briefly described, and countless others today, have come to challenge this scalar bias and instead, increasingly, to operate on the 1:1 scale, no longer distinguishable from their object on the basis of scale and thus of use. Such full-scale aesthetics may make it possible to force memory to the fore as a dimension of the historical present, and as such, fully political.