Speaking Nearby

Daisy Lafarge delves into MAP’s digital archive to question links between geological and creative production

Speaking Nearby

In 2005, MAP’s first editorial laid out its cartographic ambitions: attempting to draw together and celebrate art and artists in Scotland while also ‘connecting to exhibitions and artists around the world’. The editor explained the decision to use mapping as a framework to enable the magazine to ‘plot destinations and show us the way’ whilst also charting ‘terrain and stars and thoughts’. [1]

In the milieu of contemporary art practice and publishing, this definition of mapping slips by innocuously, the magazine acting as participant, document and co-producer of such constellations. Although the reader might never physically access the spaces or relationships mapped within its pages (especially now that the archive affords both temporal and digitised distance), the magazine might function as a visa of sorts, permitting partial access to its terrain. [2]

Yet the same editorial began by naming what is perhaps a more sinister implication of cartography, that maps ‘describe boundaries and ownership’. Reading this 11-year-old sentence from the standpoint of 2016, while longstanding crises of land, borders and nations reach dizzying states of emergency on both local and global scales, perhaps it’s not surprising that ‘boundaries’ and ‘ownership’ strike a sensitive chord, apt to be overloaded with the ways that maps have often been put to more ominous use.

Even in the less politically volatile context of contemporary arts publishing in Scotland, it becomes difficult to think about maps without evoking the current political predicament or the looming of colonial spectres, recalling the instrumentalisation of maps in narratives of invasion and empire; of destruction and exploitation of indigenous peoples, land and resources. [3] The longer I spent between these elliptical and perhaps oversensitive associations, the more I felt ill at ease with the insinuation that engaging with the archive might grant me a cartographical birds-eye view of the content, from which I could neutrally observe the contingent connections between certain people, times and places.

At best, such attempts seemed pompous and clumsy; the actions of some official secretary of Empire, gripping a pencil and compass between chubby white fingers, drawing arbitrary lines of territory and ownership across content never felt, heard, seen, smelled or touched. Even in the comfortable passivity of an Armchair Voyage, [4] the conatus of maps is to oversee, annexe, and control; to lay claim to a kind of cultural topography. The archivist as cartographer is not spared from complicity, though he/she may never physically follow the lines from which he/she draws a living. Without reflection on his/her own position within it, the act of assembling a map is akin to the assumption of a godlike perspective, above and exterior to terrestrial realms.

It’s in this muddled context that I began to dream up other methodological frameworks for approaching the archive. If maps are concerned with land as surface and territory, perhaps an archive should be approached less like a map, and more like the land itself: composed of dense, diverse layers that stack to form something more complex than their constituent parts. Layers that might look static but in fact are in constant, unseeable processes that transform and condition the topographical status quo.

What follows then, is a series of notes and observations, borrowing from methodologies that are opposed to the reduction of land to surface and territory, and instead concern themselves with the relational processes of tension, compression and expansion that play out across non-human temporalities to create (and destroy) form and content. This is not to overlook the colonial culpability also shared by practices of archaeology and geology, suggesting them as comparatively neutral disciplines, but rather to see if the speculative construction of archive as land might afford new ways of approaching, understanding and engaging with its material contents. In short, that assuming a kind of ‘amateur’, disciplinary drag might provide a position from which to work towards what filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha refers to as ‘talking nearby instead of talking about.’ [5]


It felt a bit ridiculous at first, being not only an amateur in the archives, but also posing as amateur geologist and archaeologist. I decided to enlist the help of a visionary field-guide who I’d discovered earlier in the year, someone who also problematised the boundaries drawn between the individual and their surroundings; between artistic creation and natural processes. I was introduced to the eminent, but largely forgotten, archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes at an exhibition in February, 2016, whose modus operandi was radical feminist intervention into the process of archiving. The exhibition documented a range of works by three female British avant garde artists and poets of the 60s and 70s: Annabel Nicolson, Marie Yates, and Carlyle Reedy. The vast and correlating practices of these artists had until then been unfamiliar to me. A critique of neglected or marginalised legacies was built into the show, creatinga riposte to the construction of visual and textual canons that pretend an almost natural formation, twinning themselves with the supposedly ‘neutral’ process of archiving. Exhibited in the modestly-sized Space gallery at Chelsea College of Art, the show’s title the sun went in, the tide went out was drawn from a line in Hawkes’ field notebook.

The lifework and writing of Hawkes did more for the exhibition than provide its title. Objecting to the marginalisation of Hawkes’ legacy, the curators countered this by threading her ethos throughout the exhibition’s content.Hawkes’ best known work A Land (1951) was a bestseller of its time, a unique fusion of archaeology, geology, myth, cultural history and personal narrative. Breaking from an 'objective' distance, Hawkes began with her body: a description of herself lying on the grass in the back garden of her North London home. From there she worked down through the layers beneath her, reaching back in time to unearth a history of the formation of ‘land’ as we have come to know it.

Since reading A Land and other texts by Hawkes, I’ve not been able to shake off her factional approach to writing intertwining stories of the earth, people and culture. She segues seamlessly from scientific descriptions of the formation of Britain’s Bronze Age landscape, to the Carboniferous surroundings of sculptor Henry Moore’s Yorkshire upbringing, and his choice of Hornton—a Lias rock replete with fossils—as his muse and material of choice. Between chapters of formal geology she breaks for ‘An Aside On Consciousness’, explicating the links she sees between the formation of land and, through the evolution of consciousness, human creativity:

The forces of attraction and repulsion, of mutuality, in all their forms, have acted like some universal, instinctive artistic genius, creating all that is most highly formed, most brilliantly coloured in the world: all that is furthest from the drab equality of chaos. [6]

Inspired by Hawkes’ proto-interdisciplinary approach, the curators saw a continuity between their archival work with artistic material, and the raw material of her archaeological practice. The contiguity or conflation of physical and cultural topographies is also explored by art critic Lucy Lippard, whose Overlay – Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (1983) was catalysed by a year spent by Lippard on a rural farm in 1977. The stay was prompted by fatigue of her ‘complicated urban life of criticism, organising and activism. I wanted to walk, to read, and to write a novel, nothing else.’ [7] Yet during these long walks, Lippard’s encounter with ancient rock and land formations provoked a renewed understanding of contemporary art in continuity and parallax with the natural forms around her. Critically eschewing the dangers of ‘primitivising art’, she came to understand creative practice as forming a feedback loop, and in doing so synthesised a manifesto of sorts for socially aware artists dealing with symbolic possibilities:

The real challenge […] is to make the resurrected forms meaningful now, not in terms of nostalgia, but in terms of present struggles and dreams and hopes and fears. [8]


Returning to the MAP archive, I began to see traces of this formal or material continuity everywhere: the website’s SEASONS tabs stacked in coloured layers beginning to look uncannily like strips in diagrams of the earth’s stratigraphy. At first this visual association seemed purely coincidental—but as I spent more time browsing the archives, my mind kept returning to this image. If cartography is about charting and delimiting the surface of a given topography, surely a stratigraphical approach allows for distrust and disruption of this surface: digging down into its constituent layers to understand the processes of tension and compression that engender their form.

Supposing there is something to be said for a methodology—or at least mode of encounter—that conflates land with archive, nature with artistic creation, what would it look like? Surveying the brief cultural topography charted by MAP’s lifetime, it might include the rise and fall of artistic vernaculars that could be likened to the formation and denuding of mountains: imperceptible at proximity but discernible through the wide-angle of geological or deep time. Hawkes describes this process as the land ‘breathing’. As the study of International Art English (IAE) has suggested, the way we talk (or don’t talk) about art builds our structures of arts education, institutions and display. [9] When seemingly infinitesimal deposits of artistic dialects are collected and writ large, the shape of our cultural landscape comes into focus.

Like tectonic plates, discrepancies in medium or subject matter might be found to lie side-by-side, amicably dormant, until some unanticipated shift forces them into violent abrasion with far-reaching consequences. Schisms, cracks, and feuds install themselves on the surface, indelibly marking the lie of the land.

At deeper levels, certain moments in artistic practice might be crushed into obsolescence by younger material accruing above it: their strata subsuming the older, deeper content—unable to withstand the pressure—into nondescript deposits of no interest to the selective archaeological eye. Then again, the same act of pressure might account for the transformation of other moments into some rare fossil or mineral: its material crystallising into value. Looking back through the MAP archive has a somewhat dazzling effect: a select haul of names, exhibitions and groups—now infamous—that demand attention and a kind of hushed, museological respect. The allure of stones before they became precious.

As with any metaphor, there are limits to its efficacy. There are contradictions too: whereas the creation of art and archives are distinctly human endeavours, the processes of land formation began long before we had any part in the narrative. What’s interesting about the archive then, is where the human inflections become most visible and reflect our shifting relation to land.

Like a series of animal tracks or digital paw prints, the indexical ‘tags’ on the archive expose the trail of our interests across a period of time; tracks that we might be able to read were we only equipped with the necessary expertise to read them. What does it indicate, for example, when the tag for ‘historical’ bears 36 items, and that of ‘future studies’ only three? What characterises the division of ‘natural world’, ‘environmental’ and ‘land art’, and does it augur some sort of progression in consciousness regarding our place in an increasingly precarious ‘nature’? When navigation of the digital archive is mapped in terms of user pathways, can we find tangible relations between these online and offline spaces, indicated by their shared language?

Regarding consciousness and the spaces it plays out in, Hawkes described how in urban, literate surroundings, ‘self-consciousness becomes a sharp knife cutting man away from his matrix’. It’s necessary to caveat this quote with Hawkes’ modernist context: her texts are undeniably wrought with nostalgia for some original ‘matrix’, for forms of land-dwelling unmarred by the stain of industrialisation and increasingly mechanised societies. It’s a pining that can perhaps be located in the immersive multi-temporality of her profession. Her field diary—written as a 22-year-old archaeology graduate as part of an expedition that unearthed the first Neanderthal skeleton discovered outside Europe—relates her sense of connection to the exhumed body. It’s a moment of recognition in which she experiences an ‘unbroken stream of consciousness’ between each other, preserved across time through a shared materiality.

A human being is hardly more cut off from its surroundings than is a naked fire. It is continuously exuding gas and moisture and consuming other gas; a variety of waves can pass through a wall, through air and through a human body almost without interruption. [10]

The young Jacquetta Hawkes chose ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe this solidarity of sentience and species with the ancient, unknown other lying in the ground before her—a term usually stuck fast to its meandering embodiment in prose. Coined in the late nineteenth century, the term would radically reshape literature: fulminating dogmas of grammar and syntax to forge alternative trysts of words, and with them, thought. In the seemingly choking and elitist atmosphere of contemporary artspeak diagnosed by IAE, perhaps sideways forays into the framework and vocabularies of other worlds might be one way to let off steam. [11]

Whether Hawkes was deliberately applying a textual conceit to her experience or not, the term’s multivalence chimes with our conflation of land and archive. The moment of connection across time that Hawkes experienced with the Neanderthal’s body—the suddenness of some irrational, matrixial tug—can surely find overlap with the instance of archival discovery. A moment that, although a fairly solitary endeavour, results in a sense of mutual recognition, of communion or conversation with the documented or authorial other, or in this case: the artists, writers, musicians and curators that the MAP archives preserve.

Daisy Lafarge graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2016, and will begin an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Glasgow between the departments of Creative Writing, Geography & Earth Sciences and Epidemiology. Her research will comprise working with field teams and diverse communities in rural Tanzania to explore the role that narrative and oral traditions might play in communicating livestock and healthcare advice.

 [1] The arrival of MAP on the scene occurred two years after Scotland’s premier at the Venice Biennale whose exhibition ‘Zenomap’is recounted in the MAP editorial as having been named after ‘the brothers Zeno, two Venetian navigators who allegedly sailed west from Scotland and charted new territories 90 years before Columbus.’ The name ‘Zeno’ leads almost too neatly to a consideration of its homophone xeno, as in xenophobia: ‘a deep-rooted fear of foreigners or fear of the unfamiliar’, whose Greek root ξένος (xenos) means both ‘strange’ and ‘foreigner’.

[2] ‘Visa’ comes from the French viséhaving been seen—emphasising the reader’s temporary inclusion in otherwise exclusive network.

[3] Much has been written about the colonial legacy of maps and the role of cartography in establishing Empire that should not be flattened to recapitulation here, cf. The Imperial Map: Cartography and the Mastery of Empire, James R. Akerman, University of Chicago Press, 2009

[4] Armchair Voyage was a BBC series that first broadcasted in 1958. Presented by archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the show offered viewers the chance to virtually join the Hellenic Travellers’ Club in which scholars attended lectures held by Wheeler on cruise ships, whilst touring sites of classical import around the Mediterranean such as Delos, Athens, Lesbos, Venice and Mycenae.

[5] Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Speaking Nearby:” A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 8 No. 1, Spring 1992, pp.82-91

[6] Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land, 1951, p.29

[7] Lucy Lippard, Overlay – Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, 1983, p.1

[8] ibid. p.6

[9] ‘International Art English – On the rise – and the space – of the art-world press release’ Alix Rule and David Levine, in Triple Canopy, Issue 16, July 2012

[10] Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land, 1951, p.32

[11] cf: fumarole (n.), an opening in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge.