Combinatorial Elements II: Cartographies, Community and Virtuality

July 22, 2016

In this article, I will attend to another set of those “combinatorial elements” which have been determining factors in the discursive trajectories of contemporary art, and the way in which the art of this era deals with its links to the socio-cultural reality in which it is inscribed. As I argued in Combinatorial Elements I, these dynamic notions not only characterize artistic practices and reveal the primary attributes that configure them, but moreover they give the appearance of theoretical models that allow us to traverse the borderlands territory of the artistic, always pulled between the general (theory) and the specific (works). These notions are: cartography, community and virtuality.

All three share a reference to a notion of art that defines it as a way of doing that is more focused on working than on the work, which is elaborated as a political activity, and in which language itself is an exercise of the political to the extent that it tends to give way to an encounter, an effective and affective interaction, between singular individuals. The work of art is thus presented as a liminal space or a threshold, a site allowing for the communicability of contact and articulation among a plurality of singulars, and which is understood as an end product.

The notion of cartography, like those of community and virtuality, appears in contemporary artistic practices as an opportunity for the elaboration of strategies and protocols that allow for an understanding—and conceptualization—that goes from the singular to the plural, without resorting to the logic of abstraction; forms of reflection and investigation in which the work itself becomes one more body in the space of the world, a “character” within the scene.


Paul Ramírez Jonas, Magellan's Itinerary, A Reproduction (2005), Detail. Print on letterhead paper. 167.6 x 23.5 cm
Paul Ramírez Jonas, Magellan's Itinerary, A Reproduction (2005), Detail. Print on letterhead paper. 167.6 x 23.5 cm


One of the ways that contemporary art has defined its critical vocation, in this de-localized and globalized—as Foucault would say, heterotopic—world, has been by reinterpreting territory and space through different cartographical practices, which not only operate as devices that subvert the historical, economical and political logics underlying representation and the appropriation of places, but also seek to inscribe into the world alternative visions that testify to differences.

In the contemporary world, especially in Latin America, art that uses cartographical strategies attempts to critically trace the social and political structure of the communities—and spaces—in which they occur: tracing their routes, their features and styles; giving testimony to the transformations that have occurred in these places as a result of the coexistence of a heterogeneous and cosmopolitan population; attending to new nomadic and fugitive subjectivities that constitute cultural dynamics. Among the distinct forms in which the networks of political power are woven, cartography allows art to look back upon tradition and seek out its ruptures, its discontinuities, its rhizomes, and from there, potentially, to elaborate critical discourses.

Therefore, cartography in contemporary art does not only deal with the “elaboration of territories,” whether real, represented,  or imaginary; it also has to do with altering the ordering of existential spaces, confronting tradition from the most subversive angle, and taking power in order to examine the conditions and problems being confronted.

In this sense, the potential cartographies inscribed by contemporary artistic practices are of a distinct sort. Some deal with the diverse types of spaces in which we exist; such works reflect on the very nature of representation, as well as on the typologies of classification and definitions of places, whether personal, public or symbolic. Other works provide cartographies of social and political environments, delving into the power relationships instituted in connection with the cultural practices they bring about, by questioning the existing orders and pointing out new formulas of configuration. Likewise, there are works that are presented as cartographies of the body: actions that reflect upon distinct ways of life, experiences and movements, shattering the fixity of representation and exposing a plurality of subjectivities that coexist in the world and its emotive displacements. Finally, we can also take into account two further cartographical modes: the cartographies of memory, in which we find an interweaving of everyday events and social occurrences, fears and desires, founded in an imaginary and discursive amalgamation in which the past is interconnected with the present; and the cartographies of the intangible, conceptual cartographies which reveal unnoticed aspects of the world’s design, and in which diverse logics for understanding reality are expressed, revealing their points of intersection, junctions, vacancies, connections and disconnects.


Amalia Pica, Venn Diagrams (Under the Spotlight) (2011). Two-channel spotlight and motion detector. Variable installation dimensions
Amalia Pica, Venn Diagrams (Under the Spotlight) (2011). Two-channel spotlight and motion detector. Variable installation dimensions


If in the 20th century the idea of community was understood from the perspective of identity and was related to artistic practice by way of the denunciation of exclusion and injustice in works that had effective commitments to emancipatory or revolutionary efforts, in the contemporary scene the notion of community has become a vocation, a purpose. In contemporary art, the crisis of the artistic object has intensified, and in its place “works” are formulated as events or occurrences for which the material object is a device, an instrument. Seen in this way, we can say that the great myths of art—image and authorship—have been interrupted, placed into crisis. Therefore contemporary artistic practices have accepted the challenge of thinking in and through this interruption, in consideration of the place they occupy within the overall cultural framework, as well as of the models and strategies that give them meaning. Paradoxically, in the contemporary scene the inconclusive character of art is proposed as a substantive attribute, which not only implies ever-changing possibilities for readings and interpretations, but also fundamentally allows for an understanding of the work in terms of the construction of a community of participants whose connections consist of nothing more than their constant intervention. The work is ever in the process of becoming, and always remains a work in progress.

From another perspective, the idea of community brings together the desire for a social connection in which singular subjects exercise political sovereignty and question the forms of institutional representation. In the same way that the political cannot be reduced to political regulation, art is not only a matter of representation, but also, on the contrary, a way of giving place to the possibility of constituting a provisional—and always changing—community, established through the pure desire for appearance. In the same way that each of our existence is distinct from the essence to which our belonging to the community reduces us, likewise works of art—artistic events—appear not only as representations of a meaning or incarnations of an essence, but rather as “sites of appearance” in which reality can take on distinct features. Therefore art ceases to have to do with a specific story or concept, becoming assimilated into the offering, the apparition. The occurrence that is the work of art, as a provisional basis for community, puts into action what the idea of the commonplace contains in potential. The aesthetic experience, pleasure in shared or transmitted sensuality, constitutes in this way a sort of “communism of sensuality,” as Jean Luc Nancy would put it.


Tania Pérez Córdova, Call Forwarding (from the series Things Lost in Pause) (2013). SIM card and porcelain. 32 x 32 x 2 cm
Tania Pérez Córdova, Call Forwarding (from the series Things Lost in Pause) (2013). SIM card and porcelain. 32 x 32 x 2 cm


In a matter of years, technological development has placed the power to establish dialogues among individuals situated in distant and diverse surroundings, kilometers apart, within the majority of society’s grasp. That dialogue is installed within a common space that is not present in either location: virtual space, the central plaza of our time. This fact has not only brought about important transformations in human relations, as well as in the relationship between the subject and the world, but it has also given “works of art” a new place of inscription and a distinct mode of elaboration and communication.

Virtuality is, therefore, a new space of appearance that involves important changes to the structures of communication both with regard to the content as well as to the people communicating. In essence, virtuality implies new forms of creation and construction that were previously inconceivable: a new type of fundamentally interactive “work,” in which texts, sounds and images are brought together. This complex and interactive condition, involving several “expressive media” and also distinct operators, makes virtual works of art (or those produced using networks and electronic resources) into an artistic event (and not a product or an object) which is manifested as a grid of partial and provisional meanings. These works are elaborated from different—multiple—perspectives, requiring an interpretation by intervals. Therefore, in these works we find that the meaning of the “work” is elaborated through a set of reversible and changing relationships; a meaning that is not denotative, nor constructed as a sum of meanings, but rather takes place within an open interpretive space: that of connotation.

Virtuality is, precisely, that open space that is characterized not only by the possession of its own structuring coordinates, but which also converts processes into situations. Therefore, the work constructs a “world,” in the literal sense of the term, to the extent that “representation” has ceded its place to a succession of processes that “imagine texts that conceive images that imagine a world”: an other world, distinct from the phenomenological world, a world of texts and concepts placed under a gaze, in which participants are liberated from the need to read or think, to respond to a symbolic system, and they interact with the work through play, in an act of appearance.

Through virtuality, artistic projects seek to situate the “work” as a collaborative construction—between artist and spectator—by way of a constant dialectical play, and therefore these projects are undertaken for the most part as provocations, challenges which, inscribed in simple forms of presentation, aim to establish a common ground from which participants might join in new structures of communication, and from there, might begin to imagine a different society.

Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen