Bouchra Khalili. The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–11. Eight-channel video (color, sound), duration variable. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © Bouchra Khalili. Courtesy of the artist


Explore how five key works push the boundaries of map-making.
Jane Cavalier Jul 6, 2020

“For the first time in human history, the whole earth is becoming one interdependent society with our interests, needs and problems intertwined and interfering. The threads of existence have become so tightly interwoven that one pull in any direction can distort the whole fabric, affecting millions of threads. A new analytical attitude is called for, a clear overview or summing up.”
—Agnes Denes, 1990

The spread of COVID-19—a virus that knows no borders yet moves along the fault lines of social and economic inequality—has been cause for reflection on the deep interconnectedness of our world. Maps of coronavirus activity have created new ways to visualize our interdependency, helping us to understand phrases like “exponential growth” and “flatten the curve,” while also offering a semblance of control over the disease in their ability to track its movements. Historically, maps have been drawn by governments to create borders, assert control, and project a “universal mastery” in their confluence of science, technology, and politics. Yet for many artists in recent decades maps have presented a different kind of opportunity.

In these five artworks, drawing is used to push the boundaries of map-making, reimagining this exercise in world-building as a chance to represent the political, emotional, and psychological landscapes that connect people to geography, and to one another. Using the line as a tool for separating and distinguishing one space from another, drawing has an inherent role in demarcating borders. But these artists use drawing to challenge this relationship between line and border, instead emphasizing connectivity over division, the relational over the singular, and a view from within rather than from above.

Agnes Denes. Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space. Map Projections – The Snail. 1974

Agnes Denes uses isometric projection—a method for representing three-dimensional objects in two dimensions—to map the world onto a snail shell. Part of a series created between 1973 and 1980, in which Denes projected the continents onto everyday objects ranging from hot dogs to pyramids, this drawing takes topology (the study of geometric properties that are preserved under conditions of distortion such as stretching or twisting) rather than cartography (the practice of making a fixed graphical representation of a geographical area) as its starting point. In Denes’s work topology becomes a metaphor for seeing the world as a system of interdependencies—humans and nature, part and whole, here and there—that persist even as they are pushed to their limits. In the 1960s, Denes was among the first artists to work with computers to create digital models. Challenging “old oppositions between drawing and diagram,” in the words of MoMA curator Michelle Kuo, this work connects art, mathematics, and technology to offer a new schema for visualizing the world as a set of relationships.

Juan Downey. Map of America. 1975

In Juan Downey’s Map of America, swirls of color replace national borders and project the artist’s hopefulness about the potential of networked communication—what the artist called “invisible architecture”—to overcome the political and geographic separation of people across the Americas. Downey created this drawing in conjunction with a road trip from New York to the southern tip of Latin America, during which he filmed videos of and alongside different communities that he then “played back in different villages,” to share information and create cultural bridges. Downey later combined his video footage to create the installation Video Trans America (1976). Optimistic about the potential of technology to connect geographically isolated people, he reflected on this theme in drawings. Here, Downey uses the map as a site for projecting his idealistic vision of a borderless America, one unified by the movement of people and the electromagnetic waves which carry their stories on video.

Öyvind Fahlström. Sketch for World Map. 1972

“BOOM! FOR WHOM?” reads the text scrawled alongside a sardonic diagram of America’s political and financial investment in Brazil (Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström’s birthplace), together forming one piece of the geopolitical puzzle outlined in Sketch for World Map. Borrowing from the unassuming and satirical form of comics, Fahlström casts drawing and writing as co-conspirators in this map of global networks of corruption and aggression. Using the friction between the American government’s words and actions to animate his drawing, he not only traces a history of America’s involvement abroad, but also lays bare the political rhetoric used for their justification and concealment. Fahlström moved to New York from Sweden in 1961, experiencing the shifting political climate as public outrage grew over the US government’s increasing commitment to an unending war in Vietnam. Here, and in other works by the artist, Fahlström treats map-making as an exercise in writing an alternative history of power, one that traces its abuses. Reshuffling borders to bring together similar stories of injustice, and often taking a perspective from below, rather than above—as in his depiction of Cambodia, where planes carrying American bombs are seen in the skies—he creates a form of counter-cartography.

Mieko Shiomi. Spatial Poem No. 1. 1965

Looking to integrate two seemingly divergent approaches to art making—“DIY” (do it yourself) and global collaboration—Mieko Shiomi developed the idea for Spatial Poem No. 1. Shiomi used the postal service to send artists and collaborators across the world an invitation to respond to a language-based prompt: “Word Event: Write a word (or words) on the enclosed card and place it somewhere. Please tell me the word and the place, which will be edited on the world map.” One response came from the artist Takako Saito, who wrote “MELT” on a card that was “supposed to be lying down under snow in the woods at Ridgewood in New Jersey,” but was reported “missing” in a playful nod to the change of seasons. As a member of Fluxus, an international community of artists headquartered in New York, Shiomi was given the group’s global mailing list by artist and impresario George Maciunas, who agreed to collaborate with her on the project. Maciunas later disagreed with the format of the work, so Shiomi was left to create the map boards on her own. This is one possible explanation for why the map was hand-drawn while other elements, such as the flags carrying participants’ responses, were printed. (Thank you to my colleague, Danielle Johnson, for this suggestion.) A microcosm of the international landscape on which the work was carried out, the map board not only visualizes Fluxus’s global network, but also shows how the singular, DIY efforts of one individual could connect people across the world in artistic collaboration.

Bouchra Khalili. The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–11

A line can separate one place from another, but it can also express movement between them. In Bouchra Khalili’s video installation The Mapping Journey Project, eight individuals tell the stories of their politically and economically driven migrations across the Mediterranean basin. While recounting their travels, the subjects illustrate their journeys in permanent marker, tracing their movements over and against the more familiar structure of national borders. The use of permanent marker is significant, the artist has said, “as if drawing were literally erasing the existing and arbitrary boundaries.” As expressions of the subjects’ agency, movement, and determination, their lines forge a new language of place, a way of saying “I was here.” Khalili represents her subjects only through their hands in the act of drawing, as if to make sure they are heard as subjects with agency, rather than seen as mere victims of displacement. In this context, the individuals’ journeys come across as both personal and also indicative of their shared, if often unspoken, paths. Drawing emerges as a tool for laying claim to one’s basic human rights to safety and opportunity, and for connecting the experience of the individual to the collective.

Agnes Denes, “The Dream,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Summer, 1990), p. 920.
Robert Storr, Mapping. New York: The Museum of Modern Art and H.N. Abrams, 1994, p. 13.
Michelle Kuo, “The Human Argument: The Writings of Agnes Denes.” Bookforum, Feb/Mar 2009
Mieko Shiomi in Michelle Elligott, “Interview with Shiomi Mieko,” October 27, 2011.
Midori Yoshimoto, Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2005, p. 156.
Quoted in Sarah J. Montross, “Cartographic Communications: Latin American New Media Artists in New York, Juan Downey and Jaime Davidovich (1960s–1980s),” Dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts: New York University, 2012, p. 130.
Quinn Latimer, “Disregard the Forms: Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project.” MoMA, 2016.