Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery.” For rather than markers of the fifteenth century narratives, they serve to frame a range of narratives of discovery that promote the fifteenth-century navigator as an icon of nationhood that were foreign to the fifteenth century. In making claims for the foundational role that the navigator’s transatlantic voyage, they create a new narrative of nation, particularly powerful for its ability to occlude and obscure other narratives, and indeed the presence of local inhabitants in a region, so that they assume the deracinating violence of a map: as claims of possession, and indeed mastery over space, they dislodge nativist presence in a region, much as Columbus did as a royal agent, and glorify the acts of renaming, and taking possession of, the new world, in ways that ally the viewers with the heroism of the Genoese navigator’s foundational act of taking possession of the New World by staking the transatlantic “colony” La Navidad as the first settlement by Europeans of the New World on Christmas. The event’s commemoration has continued in statuary across the Americas, even if the thirty-nine settlers left behind in the settlement were all massacred by natives after their ship, the Santa Maria, was dismantled after it hit a sandbar, and the men of the lost caravel that ran ashore on a sandbar off the island Columbus had auspiciously renamed Hispaniola, as evidence of Hispanic claims to sovereignty for his patrons, its hull and crossbeams converted to a fortress that was later burned to the ground. While the crew left with a translator who were instructed to collect a store of New World gold as they awaited his return may have been overzealous in courting natives that they were all killed, the extraction of riches and wealth and slaves motivated the New World settlement. Yet for the commemoration of Columbus Day, the landfall has been renarrated as an inspired revelation of new lands in the painting that Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín, staged before uncomprehending natives cowering offstage as a missionary raises a cross on verdant shores where sailors triumphantly raised recognizable standards of the Spanish sovereign in the New World.
The bucolic image of arrival was cast as a triumph of technology, civilization, and deliverance. The bucolic scene not only denied violence, but was an image of paradisal promise that Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín rendered in a manner widely reprinted in the lithograph of the commemorations of quadricentennial celebrations of 1892 as a narrative of westward expansion of Manifest Destiny. The recent re-questioning of Columbian commemoration as a common national identity led to the questioning of commemorative Columbian statuary across the United States, from Columbus, Ohio to San Francisco to Kenosha, WI, to Miami. As the statues were dislodged from the common memories of an Italian-American community–as many once were in New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia as well as New York City–their place loosened in a narrative of nation in ways that needs to be told. Attracted by a remarkable burst of creative iconoclastic energy, San Francisco’s City Arts Commission preemptively monument to Columbus somewhat preposterously overlooking the Pacific to be removed from its monumental pedestal in order to maintain the local peace–a statue long defaced in recent years–before it was defaced.
The removal of monuments to Columbus spread as a retallying of moral accounts, but a restoration of civil peace. The importance of refiguring the commemoration of colonization grew as a form of reparations whose logic was unmistakably national in character, if the first questioning of Columbus Day had been local and selective in 1992-3. The deposition of the 4,000 pound statue, with a violence that would repeat and channel the rejection of the figure of Columbus whose monuments were already deposed in Boston, St. Paul, Minnesota; Camden, NJ; Richmond, VA, and other cities in New York state, one of which was beheaded–if long after the statue to the navigator was ceremoniously pushed into the ocean in 1986, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with a placard “Foreigners out of Haiti!” And by 2020, the ease with which statues of Christopher Columbus were assimilated to the confederate monuments preserved across many southern states–and preserved at considerable cost to American taxpayers–reminded us of how easily the memory of Columbus as colonizer was cultivated among white supremacists as iconic testaments to a sense of historical security of another era we were trying to pry ourselves free in hopes to gain distance on.
If monuments removed with an eye to toppling racism across southern states that had commemorated secession in the attempt to defend enslavement and chattel slavery were a stain on the nation that emerged like a return of the repressed in the summer after George Floyd’s murder by overly zealous “law enforcement” forces, the removal of monuments had begun as undeniable evidence of their talismanic status as lodestones for white supremacy became clear after violence in Charlottesville directed attention to the degree to which commemoration of the Confederacy kept a memory alive in national and local consciousness, revealing how undecisive the Civil War was for the preservation of local memories across many border states or secessionist states, and the toxic nature of preserving memories of southern secession as a defense of what were cast as local liberties within the union.
The division assessment of historical legacies that shape a narrative that informs the present landscape of inequity had been contested for decades around the heroicization of the figure of Columbus as a shared national point of reference. As much as the seven hundred and eleven standing monuments of commemorating secession–over 1500 statues which are collectively preserved by taxpayers’ money at a cost of $40 million for annual upkeep. The standing statues dedicated to anti-abolitionist figures have kept the memory of the Confederacy alive across the United States, including of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, creating a topography that has inflected political identities in ways Donald Trump was savvy if hateful to tap, as if to present or re-present an incubus already planting seeds across the land, many of which were only removed by energized (and disgusted) protestors or whose remove was ordered by city councils in an attempt to preserve the local peace–including of the unidentified heroic “Confederate soldier” who removes his hat in downtown Alexandria, VA, removed only in June 2020–if similar statues remain in Jacksonville FL, and San Antonio TX, heroizing as if sanctioning the very option of local resistance to according rights to enslaved populations, beyond preserving memories of war dead.
The spattering of blood on Columbus memorials call for a revision of public memory complicit in a culture of spatial colonization that perpetuates the fundamental nature of racial hierarchies. The requestioning of commemorating the act of violence as fundamental to the nation’s values is a questioning of their place in civil society, and their meaning to the nation, motivated in no small part by the ugliness with which they have been seized with new currency as images justifying a racial superiority and sanctioning the violence of enslavement along racial lines. For their removal had tried to call attention to the dangers of commemoration by targeting the figure of Christopher Columbus, whose statues had first multiplied across American land in roughly the same era of the later nineteenth century, following Confederate statues, in a sort of monument trick that served to naturalize white possession of indigenous lands.
The overturning of commemorative statues of the fifteenth-century navigator so deeply dissonant to our sense of national belonging, common memories, redressed disturbingly long-lasting spatialities–the average statue was almost a hundred years old–as the nation entered a temporal loop of recursive nature of reparative bent, as the destiny Columbus imagined for himself as a civilizer and discoverer of a New World–and new continent–emerged in increasingly pressing ways, opening up the very speech act of taking possession of the Americas as a fiction, only masquerading for utilitarian ends as a binding legal precedent. For only by confronting the painfully exclusionary nature of such an act of taking possession, deriving more from the practices of enslavement and mastery of others that run against the very basis of our own civil society, or the civil society we seek to create.
Indeed, the San Francisco’s 4,000 pound commemorative statue of Columbus, often defaced as a symbol of enslavement and subjugation in recent years, was removed by a crane and as a call to dump it into the Bay was circulating, on Thursday, June 18, removing it from a scenic site by the Pacific beside Coit Tower, leaving an empty pedestal, perhaps to reduce the need to clean up a statue that had been repeatedly defaced in recent weeks but also to show consensus about lack of interest in defending a symbol of oppression, enslavement, and colonial violence, and public outbreaks around the call to depose the statue off Pier 31, not as a symbol of colonial resistance, but an expunging of the navigator from national history. All of a sudden the dismantling of public memories of Columbus’ heroism were national news, a divisive issue responded to not with understanding but professed shock for besmirching American history, not reassessment of values, battling Italian-Americans Nancy Pelosi herself as forsaking, as if to bemoan her betrayal of the preservation of the hallowed memory of Christopher Columbus in the summer of 2020 to stoke lines of political division in the heat of the 2020 Presidential campaign: the fate of the statuary of Columbus was a bell whistle for stoking fears of a danger to the status quo.
It was as if the spontaneous prominence across the nation of memorials to George Floyd, proliferating on street walls in full color, and in haunting offset likenesses, provoked introspection demanded introspection of what sort of memorials we identified with and wanted to see the nation, placing on the front burner of all the question of commemoration in terms that had long been glossed over and tacitly accepted. The questioning of commemoration after Floyd’s murder came to articulate a spontaneous rebuke of the continued validation of racialized policing and police violence, throwing into relief discriminatory monuments. There were soon few defenders of the monument able to tolerate how they emblematized division of the social order, eager to ask us to situate Columbus more broadly rather than historicize his complicity in “some of his acts, which nobody would support,” without addressing the framing of the logic of “discovery'” in imperial narratives of conquest and disenfranchisement of indigenous claims to sovereignty and to recognize the need for reparations.
For the navigator embodied an imperial relation to space and terrestrial expanse, discounting the inhabitants of regions, and affirming the abstract authority of sovereign claims and sovereign expanse, however improbably early maps placed the islands in the Caribbean–later called Hispaniola–based on his conviction that the Atlantic Ocean was able to be traversed, enabling transatlantic voyages for which Spain was well poised to expand commerce far beyond the coast of Africa and the Mediterranean for economic ends in an “Enterprise of the Indies” that Columbus proposed to John II of Portugal, before he set out to claim the new lands for Ferdinand and Isabella. The longstanding embedded nature of Columbus in a discourse of claiming land–a discourse from which he was not only inseparable, but embedded maps in claims of the administration and supervision of lands far removed from seats of terrestrial power, a map-trick that has been celebrated since as a form of inscribing territorial claims on a piece of paper or globe.
And if Columbus had no actual idea of the form of North America, the persuasiveness of fictive reimagining of his mastery over space–a mastery cast almost uniformly in intellectual terms, rather than in military terms of disenfranchisement or enslavement–provided a logic that is aestheticized in the monument as a mode for the possession and persuasion of possession over terrestrial space more akin to American hemispheric sovereignty in its open heroizing of a national geopolitics of the 1890s than to a Renaissance discourse of discovery–comparable to the reimagining of hemispheric sovereignty in the years after the 1867 withdrawal of Spanish sovereignty to Mexico.
The origins of these reframing are perhaps obscure, but lionizing Columbus was always about rewriting the American narrative, and distancing one race of immigrants–the Italian migrant–from the very native inhabitants that the story of Columbus displaced. The navigator was promoted actively as a figure of national unity in the post-Civil War centenary of 1892, in which Columbus assumed new currency as a national figure, a map on silver able to enter broad circulation as a memory for how a three-masted caravel mastered terrestrial expanse, resting above a hemispheric map of global oceanic expanse. The anachronistic map suggests as much a modern triumph of hemispheric cartography–the coastline of the United States was surveyed by geodetic terms and that established the role of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in producing maps of uniform toponymy and hydrographic accuracy had only recently set standards of coastal surveying that unified triangulation, physical geodesy, leveling, and magnetic of authority within the US Navy to produce coastal maps of the nation extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alaskan shoreline.
The imperious gaze of the limp-haired navigator seems the first self-made man as he gazes with gruff determination on the coin’s face, almost entirely filing the surface of the first American coin bearing human likeness. Columbus was an icon it identified with how the hemispheric map took charge over a continent, and gave a sense of predestination to the recently settled question of continental integrity–and a territorial bounds that new no frontier up to Alaska, whose coast had been recently surveyed, and much of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Its design for the Chicago Word Exposition suggest a hemispheric dominance reflecting the growth of Rand McNally in Chicago, a map-publisher for America, as well as the self-assertion the United States as a hemispheric power, as much as the Genoese navigator about whom so many meanings have encrusted.
The striking hemispheric map of global navigability on the obverse of the coin circulated in Chicago’s World Exposition was global, but would also mimic the claims of hemispheric dominance that the hemispheric projection recalled, prefigured the Pan Am logo, in its global in reach–as if the image of a spherical projection devised by Rand McNally that spanned the globe and erased all borders might be cast as the seedbed for globalization was itself contained in the transatlantic voyages of the small trade ships, the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria that were led with hopes of a profitable economic voyage with Columbus at the helm. (Rand McNally had not only sponsored the world’s fair, but its double spherical projection that recalled Columbus’ conviction of a spherical world by ahistorically featuring a cartographic design Columbus would have known; the planar projection was an icon of global expansion and conquest, more detailed in coverage than late seventeenth century double spherical projections.
–but devised and issued its own elegant version of a world map based on the Mercator projection in following years from 1895, in atlases issued subsequent to the World’s Fair, to meet a growing market for global maps. Leaving much of the African interior unmapped, in a manner that cannot but recall Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the image is a confirmation and announcement of global triumph, centered on the North American continent and United States, if it shows the world.
Almost unnoticed in the current crisis of who is the real sovereign of Venezuela is that national maps fail to show the remove of sovereign power from territorial bounds. Even as blockades obstruct borders, closing points of entry and ports from entering Venezuela, the pressure that push the Venezuelan people into dire economic straits underlie the map of its population, lying deep, deep within the ground beneath their feet. The ties of this underground offshore sovereignty, lying deep in oil deposits located in sandy regions or in sandstone basins, suggest the scale of redrawing sovereignty in an age of globalization–when the nature of what lies offshore can becomes a rational for globalized conflict.
The precarious claims of petrosovereignty are hard to map, but as the reserves in the Orinoco Basin and offshore on the continental shelf are leveraged against a global energy market, the real sovereignty of Venezuela–and the tensions manifested on Venezuela’s national boundaries–have become a touchstone and trigger point of global attention as the nation’s huge oil reserves held by Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA) have made the legitimacy of the nation’s Presidential election a topic of global divides.
The infographic that has gained such wide circulation in differing forms transposes the red/blue divide of the election of Venezuela’s President, as I noted in an earlier post, on a global map, in ways that barely skim the surface in suggesting the truly global consequences in which the election is understood as less by geopolitics–the ostensible reason for America’s increasing attention to its results, according to John Bolton, in a policy that extends back to the Monroe Doctrine, of preserving democracy’s expanse across our own hemisphere, but global energy markets.
The Venezuelan tragedy is local, but crises of immigration, economy, and public health seems undergirded by the corollaries of globalization–and how globalization both erases boundaries, and puts pressures on defining them, and invests huge significance on defining the “boundary” even if it has become something of an empty fetish in maps. If oil and gas were made central to Venezuelan sovereignty by Simon Bolivar, it is increasingly linked to global webs of oil exports and ties of international commerce–visible in the petroleum tankers marked by red dots in a visualization of global shipping routes–that have refracted and become a basis to interpret the question of Venezuela’s sovereignty, and in which the future of its economy and the future of its sovereignty are unavoidably entangled and enmeshed.
For the crisis that is unfolding against the economic backdrop of a precipitous drop of wages, goods, and basic human and health services suggests one tied to ripples in a global energy market. For as much as Venezuelan sovereignty was long based in the “bituminous belt” of the Orinoco Basin, whose expanse exceeds the oil in all of Saudi Arabia–
–located in the Eastern Venezuela Basin in the Orinoco Belt, surveyed as recently as 2010 by USGS as the Venezuelan government of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez took bids from Chevron and others to help finance exploration projects in the Orinoco Belt, seat of the world’s largest reserves, in a basin extending quite far offshore, in quite dense jungle.
Venezuela has long seen its petroleum sovereignty as the source of its regional independence, and of needed cash influx from multi-national corporations with whom its nationalized Petroleos de Venezuela SA–PdVSA–undertakes strategic partnerships, including Exxon and Gazprom (Russia), Sincor (China), and Belarusneft, as American multinationals were pushed out of the heavy oil-rich Orinoco Valley during the Chávez regime. The evolution of multiple “strategic alliances” in mining and oil and gas speculation with over a hundred and fifty companies from thirty-five nations led to an expansion of foreign involvement in oil extraction and gold and mineral mining that has created a lamination over the region–
–that provides a complex lens to examine the refraction of its sovereign status, and the global geostrategic importance of the region to the globalized world.
Venezuela’s sovereignty is viewed as so closely tied to global energy markets that invocation of hemispheric dominance and the American “Monroe doctrine” truly seem only so much lip service–if it weren’t for the huge access to oil reserves that the sovereignty of Venezuela will determine who has access to these reserves. And much as the earliest mapping of the same region of South America combined the rich natural hydrogeography of the curving river basin that snaked through the territory with missions who had colonized the land, to convert its inhabitants, in the region of Granada–note the jesuit presence above the equatorial line–
–the new presence on the Orinoco Basin are transnational oil companies, and repossession of their extractive wealth has provided a basis for not only nationalism, but Although their stewardship of the delicate ecosystem of the Orinoco may be doubted, as charges of a crude oil spill in the region that would be so disastrous to its ecosystem has created a specter of ecological disaster for several years that PdVSA has steadfastly denied, despite the threats of accelerated deforestation, pollution, and extinction that mining and oil accidents portend in the Guyana highlands: Maduro has claimed mining and oil extraction are now “environmentally friendly,” but satellite images have shown the extent of deforestation into once-protected areas. Little of the protected regions are actually protected as the economy has fallen into free-fall and pressure to extract gold from the region brought increasing use of mercury in mineral mills, despite a Presidential ban, and the erosion of legal enforcement on workers in the region. Although PdVSA has asserted that leaking of over 100,000 barrels of oil from local pipelines did not enter the Orinoco, but was contained in the Anzoategui province in 2016, the extent of environmental devastation may only be understood in future years across the “Strategic Mining Belt” south of the Orinoco, where the Orinoco’s major watersheds lie, where gold, iron, copper, and bauxite feed the cash reserves of the government as well as oil.
Indeed, as we consider
In an age when we increasingly form interactive maps in terms of the information we desire at the moment–and the needs that this information can provide–perhaps Trump is the sort of executive we deserve, framing information by infographics he can grasp on demand, rather than motivated by universal ideals. After the Venezuelan “economic miracle” grew by oil from 2004-2008, Maduro had declared his own state of emergency in Venezuela, back in 2016, when American intelligence predicted his time in office was only a matter of time, as inflation neared 180% and GDP fell to levels before 2004. But increasing exports to China and Russia sent a lifeline, despite shrinking foreign exchange reserves, of which Trump and Bolton are no doubt extremely attentive observers–even before PdVSA moved its European offices to Moscow in early March.
While cast to reach 100,000%, the peaking of vertiginous levels of hyperinflation near 41,838% led economic data to be closed to the public, as all revenue sources dwindle or vanish, and all foreign aid is refused by the Maduro government, as all question of a coup increasingly uncertain as most of the country is living in poverty, and a fifth of PdVSA is laid off–raising questions about the fate of extractive industries and the continued safety of existing oil reserves that are inseparable from state sovereignty.
Venezuela’s sovereign wealth extends globally, if it is located deep underground. But the long-cultivated dependence of the United States, where heavy crude flows to three refineries, which supply over 5,000 retail stations in twenty seven states, has created a question of linked economies which our ADD-afflicted President is now doubt attentive: CITGO plants along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard run against according independence to sovereign state in a globalized economy–a tie that President Trump would want to keep alive, and indeed that the impact of a sudden shock an absence of oil flowing in its nine pipelines would create.
The flows of oil have blurred Venezuelan sovereignty, and allegedly led Donald Trump to ask advisors repeatedly why American couldn’t invade the nation in August, 2017, stunning former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Advisor Clapper, as American sanctions against the nation were discussed, and then again to float the question with Latin American leaders, including the President of Colombia, after addressing the U.N.’s General Assembly, to make sure none wanted to oust Maduro as President. Global energy supplies have created a lens by which the “legitimacy” of Venezuela’s government and Presidency is questioned that has overriden constitutional practices sanctioned by Venezuelan law.
The crisis of immigration on our southern border notwithstanding, the fear of a crisis in oil important have encouraged the United States to invoke the arrival of a “crisis situation” in Venezuelan internal politics, that allows action outside the rule of established Venezuelan law of due process Trump’s eagerness to recognize Guaidó as “interim President of Venezuela” on January 23, shortly after Maduro assume the and declaration, before any other nation, of readiness to use “the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy,” as he encouraged other governments to follow suit. As Bolton works to distill Presidential Daily Briefings on global intelligence into a form that is more amenable to his chief executive–“big points and, wherever possible, graphics,” as James Clapper put it–energy markets are the basic map on which he seems to be informing himself about global politics. Mike Pompeo noted that President Trump is said to “dig deeper” into his President’s Daily Briefing about Venezuela to assess the “real layout” of “what was really taking place” there–who had the money? where was the debt?who stood to loose and gain?–led to open questioning of the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro.
At a time when 8.36 million barrels of heavy crude managed by PdVSA–the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate, Petroleos de Venezuela SA–which is worth half a billion American dollars lay off in tankers nation’s shoreline, in national waters, ready to ship to refineries to be processed by Chevron, Valero Energy Corp. and Rosneft, but with no place to ship the heavy oil, the local and global seem to intersect in globalized energy markets.
As Clapper remembered Trump’s preference in Daily Briefings for charts and data visualizations quite early on, the distilling of the Presidential Daily Briefings by John Bolton into America’s bottom-line interests may compel re-examination of the place of the nation in a global energy market, and his sense of the value of the region’s geography to American national interests. Mike Pompeo, current secretary of state, has similarly described the need to reduce global conflict to the bottom-line of America’s economic interests for Trump, given his dislike for distilling the PDB to American interests, the Venezuelan crisis may more easily be understood by infographics or “mapped” as a global calculus of oil exports, rather than a defense of democratic principles. Trump has increasingly asked, Pompeo remembered, with interest for “more clarity” on financial issues–“Who had the money, where was the debt, what was the timing of that?”–aware, as the self-proclaimed “King of Debt,” of how debt, too, structures sovereignty, and deeply aware of the US$60 billion in foreign debt the nation carried–a massive amount that has grown almost six-fold in recent years, as oil exports from the nation increasingly grow, and Russia and China invested increasing sums in its oil exports as the debt grew.
–no doubt fascinated that the submerged collateral of such huge oil and gas deposits allowed the debt to grow to unprecedented height, as the exodus of refugees leaving Venezuela’s borders grew. Indeed, we focus on the fate of refugees, and cross-border flows, as a humanitarian crisis, but on which we focus more than the flow of extracted minerals, oil, and gas that have spread out to the world, and the arrival of capital from global sources as energy exports grow.
The sovereignty of the state was long tied to the concentration of oil and gas fields in sedimentary basins of northern Venezuela and South America–and which are the understory of the global attention to results of the election. As much as they are rooted in ideological debates of socialism and free market advocates, one needs to made sense of what “what was really taking place” in much of the Eastern Venezuela Basin and Columbus Basin to parse the deep interest in Venezuela’s sovereignty–and indeed to drill down, literally, into what Venezuelan sovereignty meant for the United States.
For the protection of those reserves led U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo-former director of the CIA–to try to entice Venezuela’s own armed forces to remove Maduro as President on January 28, 2019, as Trump helped assemble hemispheric powers to deny Maduro’s legitimacy. And it has led Donald Trump to advocate gunboat diplomacy by asking aides about benefits of a “military option” they openly called analogous to the 1989 Invasion of Panama when 9,000 troops toppled dictator Manuel Noriega, with 12,000 military already stationed in the nation, after Noriega had annulled a popular election, denying foreign sovereignty in the Panama Canal Zone with little military resistance of Panamanian Defense Forces. If America seeks to achieve a similar shift of sovereignty, hoping to echo the use of military force to topple Noriega–years after he was installed as leader of Panama to stop a feared spread of Communism in 1970—due to charges of Cuban collaboration, rather than money laundering and long involvement in the drug trade, such arrogant denial of sovereignty of other states in the hemisphere would not be so lopsided an engagement of force, or so smooth.
“Soberana” or “sovereign” is somewhat ironically the now-obsolete brand-name for a beer popular in Panama, now updated, which hung from the store-front of a Panama street American forces occupied back in 1989–
–the questions of the legitimacy of Venezuelan sovereignty are deeply intertwined with the offshore drilling rights that American oil companies are eager to acquire–or repossess–and underlie the denials of the legitimate sovereignty of elected leader Nicolás Maduro. The powerful evocation of the map
The American demonization of Mauro as military dictator erases the basis of Venezuelan sovereignty and a patrimony of petroleum, from Bolivarian models of sovereign economic independence; if oil is the source of 95% of the currency provided to the government, and was long seen as a gift from God to the Venezuelan independence at the heart of Socialist prosperity–
–the ties between the oil company and oil extraction and the nation grew hen Maduro declared personal leadership of PDVSA before the National Assembly in January, 2019, on the eve of his country’s assumption of OPEC presidency, as General Manuel Quevedo–a man without oil industry experience but a close Maduro military ally from the National Guard–assumes presidency of the global cartel OPEC, with ambitions of using OPEC to affirm Maduro’s swearing in as President, and his status as a defender of retro-sovereignty as counter-weight to the United States on a global stage–as the leader of sustaining the global prices of oil, offsetting the fall in prices with the increased production of shale-derived oil in the United States from 2014 that had caused a problem for Venezuela’s national wealth, and removing oil from the hegemony of dollar prices by cryptocurrencies as Venezuela’s own oil and mineral-backed Petro,
as well as by tying them to Chinese Yuan, in the face of growing US sanctions that Trump announced as Maduro heralded the digital currency as a way to affirm his nation’s “monetary sovereignty, to make [global] financial transactions, and overcome the financial blockade” imposed by the United States on investors, which led Trump to impose further sanctions on electronic transfers from by Americans in 2018, after the Petro netted $5 billion from American investors. The hope of decoupling from the US dollar was allowed by the transfer of the 30,000 million barrels of oil in the Orinoco Belt to the Venezuelan Central Bank as collateral for the hoped-for cryptocurrency–itself a proclamation of the national ownership of oil reserves that the current struggle for Presidential legitimacy would contest.
The map of national sovereignty onto the petroleum reserves was engraved in the public’s mind on oil and gas tanks that dot the coast and interior–
–even if may of the drilling projects are in fact joint ventures of PdVSA with other nations, from multinational based in Russia (Gazprom) to China (Sincor) to Belarus to Brazil (Petrobras) to Argentina (Repsol-YPF) to Uruguay (ANCAP & ENSARA)–and image of the deep-seated globalism of the Venezuelan oil economy, whose extraction of heavy underground oil is to be piped from the Orinoco Basin to ships waiting off the coast to be refined.
As Maduro tries to reaffirm the notion of petroleum sovereignty–the slogan of Bolivarian socialism is soberania petrolera–rooted in fashioning Venezuela as a global energy power, is there a logic of the staking of war for the offshore? The alleged fear Noriega collaborated with Cuba was voiced from 1986, and offered a rational for the “Christmas-time” invasion of December 20-24, 1989, as much as Noriega’s indictment for drug trafficking, although this was the reason for his eventual arrest by the DEA. The spectacularly lopsided and unrisky military deployment of 26,000 U.S. troops in “Operation Just Cause” against the Panamanian police force is a scenario, of course, quite unlike the threat of American invasion of Venezuela, a larger sovereign nation, not without its own armed forces–an invasion of which would provide far more expansive hemispheric consequences, as the scale of targeting Chávez’ appropriation of economic property. Yet Trump thirty years later in mid-February 2019 invoked the need to end Venezuela’s “humanitarian disaster” in Florida, beside Venezuelan refugees beside an American and Venezuelan flag, to inveigh against “Dictator Maduro” as being–hear the echo–a “Cuban puppet” for blocking the arrival of aid, and describing “our neighbor” Venezuela in ways that recall Panama.
In Florida, Trump threateningly observed that “we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away [and] Venezuela is not that far away,” while privately asking advisors if invasion wouldn’t resolve threat of Venezuela’s economic collapse. As FOXTV states that the refugee crisis in Venezuela–a political, humanitarian, and economic crisis, to be sure–could “match the scale of Syria’s catastrophe,” and as sanctions imposed on Venezuela have helped precipitate an exodus that unfolded over the previous years, he was quite eager to suggest military options, in ways that give his declarations of geographical proximity particularly disquieting.
The impromptu geography lesson had huge implications: “The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy and America is right by their side,” announced the American President in Miami, before flags of Venezuela and the United States and nationalist chants of “USA! USA!”
Maduro rightly feared coup, as Trump invited Venezuelan citizens in the “Maduro regime” to “end this nightmare of poverty, hunger and death” by a peaceful transition of power as Senator Marco Rubio tweeted images of Noriega on social media–as a specter of the bombast of Quadaffi and the criminality of Noriega, that “thug of a different era,” brought down by American troops.
Rubio’s tweet of head-shots of two thugs helped recall his creation of a niche of helping to design American foreign policy toward Venezuela: the echoes of the offshore in both Venezuela and Panama were perhaps the only element that might link them, for all the similarity of a Cuban connection Trump–who seems to have little familiarity with the region–supplied. The fear that “war for the offshore” may underlie Trump’s eagerness to entertain military options. Gen. Manuel Noriega had not only been on CIA rolls, but preserved access to a notion of the offshore-banking system about which we have learned in the Panama papers; the preservation of the offshore oil derricks that Exxon and Conoco had left in Venezuela in 2007, as well as in the Orinoco Belt, which PdVSA has presumably used new international partners to maintain since to pump viscous heavy oil for international use. Trump’s familiarity with Panama and its President may mostly be through hotels–the Trump International Panama was planned from 2005 opened in 2011, and is the tallest building in Latin America–but the invasion must have provided a point of entry for inaugurating the “fantastic building in a fantastic location” on beachfront property with then-president Ricardo Martinelli, who later fled to Miami, Florida to escape charges of embezzling public funds, and has only recently returned.
The local political dynamics are vastly different, despite some similarity in American eagerness to secure offshore sites: Maduro had won his Presidential election, whereas Noriega had annulled one, but the suggestion of toppling his regime undercut all sense of sovereign boundaries, was a clear parallel assertion of hemispheric dominance, to protect offshore assets. For all the lip service to Democracy and the Will of th People–Guadió was not really elected, although as head of the “Voluntad Popular” (Popular Will) party, and has declared himself as leader of opposition to Maduro in the National Assembly, with American blessings: after trying to direct the arrival of humanitarian aid into Venezuela, he met with Mike Pence in Bogota and President Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, but his success would open the offshore waters to American interests, and has been anointed President in one theater of public opinion–but in ways that break the world in ways that reflect continued accessibility to Venezuelan oil.
But the offshore benefits of a Guaidó Presidency to the United States may be as great as any benefits that he might be able to bring, at this point, to the Venezuelan people: they transcend surely ideology, economic prosperity–save in US aid–btu would be a viable way to reopen offshore Venezuelan oil reserves, and secure assets of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips that had been nationalized in the Chávez Socialist regime. With the Orinoco Belt resources, which transformed a marginal area of oil extraction into a particularly lucrative one in a short time, complemented the drive of Houston-based Conoco to retrieve $2B of assets of lost Venezuelan oil projects, only partly reimbursed as Conoco seized some offshore PdVSA rigs in the Dutch island of Curacoa, in May 2018; ExxonMobil and Hess were poised in 2017 to start drilling projects offshore of Guyana–including several regions Maduro has claimed as Venezuela’s sovereignty, if ones identified, in public maps show, to ExxonMobil’s and Shell’s ambitions for offshore drilling and exploration.
If there is a connection between Panama and Venezuela, is it in the prospect of invasion to protect role of the offshore assets so dominant in an age of globalization? If the comparison of invading Panama was widely entertained by military, U.S. bases not only lay in Panama, unlike Venezuela, but Venezuelan troops are loyal to the Maduro government, and any asymmetrical invasion with support from neighbors is unlikely. The attempts to delegitimize the election of Maduro, and his sovereign claims to offshore oil, with such finality have been an increasing goal of ensuring global claims to its petroleum sovereignty. Yet in an American administration that encouraged the expansion of offshore drilling, the arrogance of regarding sovereignty over offshore and inland black dots denoting oil and gas wells in the below map reveals the slipperiness of Venezuelan sovereignty, no doubt tied to the readiness of regarding them as an extension of our own energy security.
And despite the heralding of waters offshore of Guyana as “the next big beast of global oil”–medium-light crude that is closer to major Middle East grades than United States shale-based oils, hoped to be rich in diesel when refined, the championing of Guyana as a next new site for oil extraction in late 2018, lies in a region that Venezuela has proclaimed as it sown, in a proclamation of uncertain enforcement, from 2015: ExxonMobil announced Stabroek blocks in 2015 and 2016 as a “world-class discovery” of up to a billion barrels of oil, as the Venezuelan government asserted it sovereignty over some of the exploration block, and has demanded that all exploration and development work be ceased until the international resolution of territorial boundaries.
The continued dispute of the “offshore” and the state of Venezuelan sovereignty only increase the importance and significance of dismissing the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Trump’s America. The confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves sadly may underly full-throated blaming of other nations for “protecting” Maduro, as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Maduro in November, 2017, appointed his own National Guard major general—Manuel Quevedo, who lacked expertise in the oil industry—to run the national Oil Ministry and PdVSA, gathered with oil ministers in the Caracas headquarters to pray “for the recovery of the production of the industry,” the beleaguered company come under American attention, as the petroleum-technologies that remain in the region. Quevedo’s almost surreal level of inexperience in the oil industry has decreased oil production; and the decline of an established oil industry became seen as a question of American National Security, as army officials without familiarity with oil production meant that military managers have purged the industry of former executives, arresting former leaders, and appointed former military aides to supervisory positions.
National oil production plummeted by over half a million barrels from 2016-18, as maritime units entered critical mismanagement, more practiced executives and engineers left, many fleeing the country among three million displaced refugees, and oil production fell daily, as the National Guard assumed leadership positions–and foreigners invited to fill needed roles as infrastructure went unprepared, creating a time bomb dramatically reducing oil production by a million barrels per day from previous years–
–and reducing exports even far more severely, as far as an be gleaned from available PDVSA and OPEC records–
–but has created steepening anxiety about the futures of its oil exports.
How to map their decline against the increasingly slipperiness of sovereignty in Venezuela–undermined by economic catastrophe and lack of goods, as well as mismanagement–and on a global stage?
Deep confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves may underly full-throated blaming other nations for “protecting” Maduro–as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Although such calls for the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó’s self-declared Presidency present themselves as rooted in international consensus, Guaidó’s “Presidency” would pave the road for an increased access of American multinational companies to refine and extract oil from Venezuelan. The nationalization of oil has marginalized joint ventures with American companies and stands to diminish investment and servicing of rigs. Exxon has been barred from extraction by Maduro and its assets nationalized, and its exploratory ships confronted by Venezuela’s navy off Guyana’s coast; Shell has been trying to unload its stake in joint ventures on oil and gas with PdVSA; CITGO will cease to ship oil to America as American sanctions have struck the Venezuelan economy–the massive decline of venezuelan oil production stands to impact American gas prices.
The result is a scarily liquid sense of Venezuelan sovereignty. America entertained possibilities of a military coup openly from early 2018, and since the summer of 2017, seems to have led him to assemble pressure from Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras–leaders themselves not elected democratically–to endorse and call for regime change in Venezuela. The pressures created on Maduro’s claims to presidential sovereignty, and a national vision rooting sovereignty in mineral deposits and wealth have grown, as the nationalized oil and gas company has seemed close to collapsing.
Such a dated geopolitical spatial imaginary runs, however, directly against the longstanding centrality of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) to national sovereignty of the state in exporting, manufacturing, and transporting crude oil and other hydrocarbons, and its central place in the sustainable and indeed “organic” development of Venezuela’s economy–and the longstanding celebration of the three hundred billion barrels of confirmed oil reserves verified in 2015 by Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, whose location is currently trumpeted on all holding tanks in maps of a natural resource fundamental to plans for the nation’s economic growth–and indeed a proclamation of their national ownership.
Although the laminations of sovereignty reveal the problems of Venezuelan sovereignty or its legitimacy that are so evident in maps of border conflicts, cross-border migrations, or humanitarian crises across borders, the problems of sovereignty in a globalized oil market, whose prices are upset by Venezuela’s shrinking exports, but which have long focussed global attention on Venezuela’s sovereignty on a global scale, at the risk of eliding and omitting the crises of regional displacement, economic disruption, and human suffering that “humanitarian aid” can’t resolve.
A crisis of global proportions rooted in the circulation of underground and offshore goods of oil and gas offshore has created a crisis that has spilled over the nation’s borders, and undermined Venezuelan sovereignty and borders–and even created a state of exception that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of its political government. The sustained undermining of Maduro’s claims to authority as illegitimate, and as allowing the very “state of exception” that would allow the leader of the elected National Assembly to oversee the transition to a new government, and constitutional order, by calling for new elections, the need for a new sovereign power to control the rich oil deposits offshore and underground with speed and expedience by the hemispheric global energy conglomerates that have contracts with PdVSA–Shell; ExxonMobil; CITGO–to resolves cascading economic troubles in Venezuela by ending Maduro’s presidency as expediently as possible. The stakes of doing so would, as Tony Wood argued, run against Venezuelan law and overturn long-established procedures of political process.
As one is struggling by attempts to imagine the crises faced on the ground by refugees and displaced on Venezuela’s boundaries–many of who provide a quite different image of refugees than we have seen from the ravages of globalization–crossing bridges and fleeing frontier with down jackets and backpacks and water bottles, if without jobs, livelihoods, or residence–
Indeed, it may be that problems of the gears of global capital, less clearly visualized, despite a mastery of multiple scales of global mapping, has pushed the nation of Venezuela to such international prominence. Despite ever-increasing facility with switching between local, regional, and global scales of mapping, we however are less able to register the increased impact of shifts of global economic changes that manifest in the fetishization of the border, and its closure. It is as if despite the omniscient promises of Google Earth to take us to any site in a globalized world, we lack an ability to map global shifts that provoke displacement onto local crises. And as much as globalization creates renewed tensions around borders that are defended and redefined against global pressures, in which the question of Venezuelan sovereignty over offshore areas where many derricks are located, and where Venezuelan oil fields are located with easier access for global markets–
–the sovereignty of Venezuela stands to be upset for emergency reasons–in a “state of exception” or of emergency that is able to invest legitimacy in the very young leader of a very small minority political party, Juan Guaidó, who was trained in the United States in Washington, D.C., after opposition parties have subtracted themselves from the democratic process and boycotted recent elections, and the oil reserves in Venezuelan waters and the pipelines able to move heavy crude reserves lying under the Orinoco River into global energy markets or to refineries in the United States. Even as Venezuela has failed to create functioning cross-border pipelines to Colombia, or to Aruba, or even to meet its citizens’ needs in gas, the national oil and gas company, PdVSA, to place hopes on exporting gas for needed capital to an imagined market for exports from that same offshore region that sadly reflects the flow of displaced persons from its borders.
–that would link Venezuela through both gas pipelines (shown in red) and oil pipelines to Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil or to port towns, but are now inactive. Guaidó was quick to congratulate Bolsonaro on his victory in Brazil,
The failure to use petroleum products to provide needed agrofertilizers that the nation once provided and exported with plastics and other mineral fuels that made up a substantial share of its GDP and national wealth, and the problems of integrating such offshore or inland projects of extraction to the “resto del mondo” in an efficient manner have created a deep cyclical crisis of economic hardships that we register now on its borders,–tied to the increased migration from Venezuela’s frontiers. But might these pressure be more accurately mapped as lying in the deep attachments of the nation’s sovereignty to reserves both offshore and underground? Even if support accorded either Maduro or Guaidó are described in most news markets and by the American President Donald J. Trump in ideological terms of socialism and populism, the underlying pressures of controlling Venezuela’s large oil reserves–and returning its productivity of oil and exports–created huge permeability of its borders, as oil output suddenly drastically declined.
The recent attempt to view the crisis as at the border where refugees and displaced have fled Venezuela at such a staggering rate–over three million Venezuelans have left its borders for other Latin American nations, leaving a million Venezuelans now residing in Colombia, among that nation’s eight displaced, as 5,000 left the nation daily during 2018—a boggling scale seen only as the result of war or huge natural disasters. The cascading numbers of displaced Venezuelans mirror the collapse of oil prices and oil industry–both of which have transformed the state’s boundaries, and transformed national borders into regions overcrowded with displaced refugees–
–in ways that recent discussions of the “sovereignty” of Venezula have difficulty including in any discussion of the nation’s economic crisis or current future political uncertainty.
In response to these crises of migration, displacement, and economic decline, many frontiers have been closed to Venezuelans, and anger at Venezuelans has grown in many host countries, creating a humanitarian crisis far beyond Venezuela’s own frontiers. The promise of energy nationalization to provide a vision of “La Gran Venezuela” since 2007 rooted in an image of national autonomy has paradoxically led its national bounds to become more porous than ever, and threatened the national economy in ways that have destabilized its national borders, opening them to humanitarian crises and economic collapse, creating odd out-migrations, quite distinctive from most images of other global refugees or displaced.
Despite invocations of the sovereign desires of the Venezuelan people, symbolized by banner-like display of territorial maps, the struggles for sovereignty in Venezuela are more removed from ideology than one might believe, following most news media. For rather than the crisis being about cross-border flows, or the barriers to needed humanitarian aid poised to cross the border into Venezuela, the global attention to the crisis of sovereignty responds less to any on the ground situation, but rather about what is mapped offshore, under the ocean, and underneath the Orinoco Petroleum Belt and Basin. For in sites of potential extraction where most of Venezuela’s nearly three hundred billion barrels of heavy oil reserves lie sequestered deep underground in sandstone, in the largest in the world, and levels of petroleum extraction–long the basis for Venezuelan national wealth–which have currently fallen to levels not heard of since the 1940s, with disastrous results of paralyzing the national economy and affecting the global oil market.
Even as Venezuela finds itself increasingly subject to global pressures even as it assumes the presidency of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. As current President Nicolás Maduro threatens to defend his nation’s place on a globalized international energy market, threatening to “substitute the United States with other countries,” to undermine the American economy and the stability of Donald Trump’s presidency, and American energy markets, the sovereignty of Venezuela is again threatened by an increasingly protectionist American government, eager to take action to keep energy prices down–keeping Venezuelan oil, long shipped to and refined in the United States by its North American subsidiary CITGO, providing tens of billions of gallons of crude oil flowing into American national energy pipelines and refineries.
As the infrastructure of oil production have either collapsed or vailed to be invested in and maintained in the nation, they have become an object of eager attention in the petroleum industry as reserves once easily able to be shipped to a global energy market have been remapped for nations that offering to provide new extractive technologies: since oil prices collapsed in 2014, the state-run oil company PdVSA without a plan or ability to invest in necessary infrastructure,–tragically echoing, perhaps, how Chavista policies hurt agrarian and agrochemical industries by short-sighted collectivization and appropriation without an effective working plan. As the rural regions often returned to something similar to subsistence farming, and uncertain future, the lack of maintaining many PdVSA rigs and derricks have created a crisis of sovereignty and capital in the nation, that demands to be better visualized and mapped.
Rudy Giuliani, more than anyone else, evokes the national trauma of September 11, 2001. If the trauma 9/11 has been a poster for increased federal powers, an excuse for violating civil rights, and a remaking of the New World Order, it is striking how much recent resurgent if hoary myths of the national values of 9/11 contributed significant spin to the careers of members of the Trump administration. Indeed, the trauma of 9/11 has been recycled in ways that have affirmed nationalist credentials and pride.
It is especially striking how the former New York mayor, and and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was able to successfully pivot from being a figure of local fame and prestige–indeed, a defender of the hope of returning New York to a lost time he seemed to embody as the locally schooled tough-talking upright son of a family composed of cops and firefighters, who seemed to tap a tradition of legal-minded public service of which he posed as champion. But 9/11 provided the optic by which Giuliani acquired a resonance and career that became wierdly global–and hardly local–as if by the alchemy of the global need for security. The miracle of the alchemical transformation of Giuliani from a local figure–imbued in a sense of neighborhood that was incarnated in the tavern his father ran in Brooklyn–became not a guarantor of a local past, which may not have ever existed, but was transmuted into a global career of posing as a strongman.
In many ways, the position that Giuliani occupied after 9/11 allowed him to claim the almost fantasy position of a warrior for good on a global stage. The transformation of the former public attorney and lawman who seemed to stand as a stalwart defendant of local values as a global figure was not quick, but endured over decades, in ways that have not been fully traced, as Giuliani converted his prestige in the global media after 9/11, as he seemed to carry the nation through trauma, into a global mercenary of something like the New World Order. For after the terrifying punctuating event of 9/11, and after he left office, the former New York Mayor rode the surface of the global media to promote his brand as a means of guaranteeing security, desalination projects, police reform, judicial reform, and even unrelated areas as investment banking.
Giuliani toured the world with an expense account, speaking for broad Neo-nationalist audiences across the world that manufactured greater credibility for a ridiculously globally broadened sense of his license, capacities, and legal expertise, in ways that his actual career as mayor or attorney would hardly have predicted or confirmed. After years of being rooted in the defense of a local moral economy, and tough-guy persona rooted in Brooklyn as well as New York City, and the NYPD, the vey mediatization of 9/11 improbably shot Giuliani to the global in ways that we are still coming to terms with in our national trajectory: emboldening Giuliani to hoc his newfound fame on a global marketplace in truly mercenary fashion, coasting on the publicity that global media platforms had generated, and surrounding Giuliani with more wealth than he had ever enjoyed–its dark backdrop catapulting the mayor to the global stage as a “tower of strength” that replaced the global status the Twin Towers had once occupied. Over the devastated New York skyline, Giuliani towered, proclaimed a true “tower of Strength” no longer a Mayor, but an advocate for global calm before menacing darkened nocturnal skies.
The New York poet Michael Brownstein–no relation!–conjured a vision of a gypsy that the very hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, men who had famously fashioned themselves as martyrs, accompanied the souls of many men, women, and children who died as a result of their actions into the afterlife, somehow acting as agents of peace as much as visiting a traumatic vision of mortality. The diabolical vision Brownstein described in the years after 9/11 must have shocked his readers, but presented what he wanted to be a healing poetic image of devastation. The Angel of Death himself must have accompanied Giuliani, a former altar boy himself who had recast himself in global media as selected to fulfill his role as a defender of the city, expanding his narcissism as he promoted himself as a symbol of security on a global stage, able to advise on crime rates, manage security, and maintain peace on a global stage that had not ever existed before with any comparable concreteness.
The searing image of a redemption after the destruction visited on New York became a means for Giuliani to be turned to as a figure of trust, a center of stability, that the world seemed to need–but on which his own. Rudy Giluiani’s huge sense of himself saw magnified on a global stage, and able to cast in global terms, a a spokesperson, lobbyist, agitator, instigator and legitimizer who could hector, yell, and barge his way onto any global stage, and command total attention for any agenda that would pay his way. Did the unweildly narcissism that Giuliani promoted in America and on such a global stage prepare the way for Trump?
When we ponder how Giuliani emerged–indeed remade himself–as an unregistered agent of other governments, allied with a law office (Greenberg Traurig, most recently, or a partner at Bracewell & Harrison, in Houston, then transformed to capitalize on his name as Bracewell & Giuliani), he skirted the law while capitalizing on his image as a hardened lawman; the contradictions were not contradictions for a man whose media image was so impressive and had gained such global currency to be hard to question. The bonds of trust that seemed forge in the years after 9/11, and the sense of cathecting with Giuliani as “America’s Mayor” truly seemed exploited, as his own historical narcissism led to a thirst for further attention, and to remove all limits from his own propriety. He extended this credibility in a failed bid for the Presidency in 2008 and after it folded sought to keep alive his image of himself as a global fix-it man.
In this post, I want to sketch the map of the bizarre global travels of Giuliani as a man who promised to accommodate any interest, promote a vision of global security who parlayed his status to a talking head on any media. He should have been far less assuring than we were willing to accord: but Giuliani’s skill at exploiting an endless reserve of symbolic capital seemed endless, allowing him to stake Presidential campaigns, and earn massive retaining fees, without much attention to what credibility the ex-Mayor ever merited. The very transnationality of the commemoration of 9/11 transformed it into a global event, and not a local one, offered a means for Rudy to travel through the looking glass, and for Giuliani to gain a global credibility that was eerily universal. We didn’t pay much attention. We discounted Giuliani’s neediness for attention as self-generated, and not itself of global impact, but it increasingly exercised influence that mirrored the very trans-nationality of the commemoration of 9/11. Their trans-nationality Rudy a truly unprecedented global carte blanche of unprecedented character.
This credibitliy was a carte blanche appealing to foreign strongmen, to be sure, who sought to fashion themselves as comparable “good guys” in a global stage demanding a way to map security in the face of terrorists, and seek a figure of calm in the swirling fears of insecurity, even if that very figure would continue to do his best to provoke our deepest fears.
The tortured narrative of the recent American election ended with something of a surprise. As we struggle to map their results, it is impossible to deny that they may mark entrance into a new world which may antiquate earlier forms and points of geopolitical reference, as global politics seem to be about to be destabilized in ways we have never seen. For in ways that reconfigure geopolitics which transcend national bounds, the extent of destabilization seems to abandon the very criteria by which we have been most familiar to map national borders, and indeed international relationships, as we enter into a new era of resistance, suspicion, and fear that dispense with international conventions that seemed established in the recent past–and internationalism rebuffed and international obligations and accords dissolved. Or at least, this was one of the few promises made by Donald Trump that appealed to voters that seems as if it will be acted upon.
The very America First doctrine that catapulted Trump to the White House stands, for all its championing of national self-interest, to be best embodied by the removal of the United States from its role on the global geopolitical map. And the removal of the United States and England–achieved through the striking success of go-it-alone political parties in both nations–seems to show just how outdated a five-color map is to describe the world.
The vintage Rand McNally map that claims to provide a world picture assigns prominence to the United States–and Great Britain–becomes the perfect foil and field to illustrate the impending uncertainty of a move against globalization across the western world.
For the prestige of the globe as an image for the dynamics of global politics was long familiar as a part of the furniture of the Oval Office, as the stunning fifty inch diameter mounted globe that OSS director William J. Donovan had specially constructed for President Roosevelt, at the suggestion of General George C. Marshall. A stunning pair of monumental mounted globes were presented President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill by the U.S. Army as Christmas Gifts in December, 1941, which set on large bases on which they rotated for easy consultation. The globe embodied the newly emergent geopolitical order that folks as Donovan created and served, and which the OSS Map Division protected. Could we imagine Donald Trump gazing with as much interest or cool at a revolving globe? While Roosevelt stares with remove but interest at the globe, apparently focussing his eyes near the Straits of Gibraltar, this formerly classified Central Intelligence Agency photography was meant to celebrate his growing mastery over a theater of global war.
The monumental “President’s” globes Donovan presented on Christmas 1942 to both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill placed monumental revolving globes–each weighing an unprecedented 740 pounds–occurred at the suggestion of Dwight Eisenhower, with the confidence of “that they foreshadow great victories,” in the words of George C. Marshall, and Roosevelt proudly told the General that he treasured the gift enough to place it directly behind his chair in the Oval Office and to marvel at the ease with which “I can swing around and measure distances to my great satisfaction;” Churchill’s was sent by airplane directly to 10 Downing Street.
The symbolic role of these large and weighty globes cannot be overstated: the large globes symbolize the complete mastery of geopolitical knowledge by both commander in chiefs in the midst of World War II; they show the investment of military forces in maps. The world map served in the post-war to embody the new global order already emerging during that war on which both understood a benevolent geopolitics destined to define American hegemony in the post-war; the Weber Costello globe company of Chicago, Illinois would construct some fifteen copies before going out of business in 1955. With sixty years of hindsight after the globe-making company shuttered its production line of deluxe maps, it seems the new United States President has opted to withdraw attention from maps.
On our annual northward migration to Ottawa this December, we gathered around the unused fireplace in an unheated living room during the warmest Canadian Christmas in personal experience–as well as in the public record for Atlantic Canada, where local records for rainfall have surpassed all earlier recorded years. Perhaps because of this, discussion turned to ownership of the North Pole for the first time for some time, as what was formerly a featureless area of arctic ice has become, as a receding polar ice-sheet exposes possible sites of petroleum mining, to become an area of renewed land grabs and claims of territoriality, as their value for nations is primarily understood in a global market of energy prospecting.
The story of the new mapping of territorial claims around the arctic ice cap goes back decades, to the exploration of offshore polar drilling, but the exposure of land raises new questions for mapping because boundaries of polar sovereignty are contested, even as oil companies have speculated by modeling sites of future exploration for petroleum deposits. In sharp contrast to the clear lines of sovereignty that were drawn along Antarctica, the ongoing disputes of the Arctic have become protracted indeed, only more contested as global warming and polar melting open the long-frozen shipping routes that have long been imagined across polar regions, opening up new fantasies and geographic imaginaries of globalization. While Antarctica remains sectorized with clear stability in the geopolitical maps per the C.I.A.’s World Factbook, the stability seven claims to ownership far less contested or open to international debate as no petroleum has been detected under the ice shelf, the southern lands that host McMurdo Station host stations occupied by sixteen governments, in a sort of tacit comity for goals of research, distributing rights but with both Russia and the United States refusing so far to recognize any as valid. And so although Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and UK are eager to claim regions as their own, as if everyone can have a slice of the frozen pie, the lack of contestation and minimal interest in the sector between 90 degrees west and 150 degrees west stands in contrast to the intense mapping and remapping of the North Pole.
Although one assumption circulated that the place was Canadian by birthright—birthright to the Arctic?–since it is so central to national mythistory. But there’s as much validity for its claims as the more strident claim the explorer Artur Chilingarov made to justify his planting of a Russian tricolor in the murky ocean bed 2.5 miles below the North Pole, during the 2007 polar expedition of the Mir submarine, with the blunt declaration that “The Arctic has always been Russian.” Canadian PM Steven Harper did not hesitate a bit before decrying these claims to territoriality, warning his nation of the danger of Russian plans for incursions into the arctic in his tour of Canada’s North, thumping his chest and professing ongoing vigilance against Russia’s “imperial” arctic “imperial” as a national affront in addressing troops participating in military maneuvers off Baffin island as recently as in 2014.
Harper’s speech might have recalled the first proposal to carve pie-shaped regions in a sectorization of the North Pole first made by the early twentieth-century Canadian senator, the honorable Pascal Poirier, when he full-throatedly proposed to stake Canada’s sovereign claims to land “right up to the pole” and transform what had been a terra nullius into an image of objective territory seemed once again at stake. Poirier claimed jurisdictional contiguity in declaring “possession of all lands and islands situated in the north of the Dominion.” Poirier’s project of sectorizing the frozen arctic sea and its islands, first launched shortly after Peary’s polar expedition, has regained its relevance in an age of global warming, arctic melting and climate change. But the reaction to the expanding Arctic Ocean in a language of access to a market of commodities has inflected and infected his discussion of the rights of territoriality, in ways that have obscured the deeper collective problems and dilemmas that the eventuality of global warming–and arctic melting–broadly pose.
The question of exactly where the arctic lies, and how it can be bounded within a territory, or, one supposes, how such an economically beneficial “good” that was part of how parts of the north pole might get away from Canada, has its roots in global warming–rather than in conquest. The dramatically rapid shrinkage of ice in the Arctic Sea has raised newly pressing issues of sovereignty; the widespread melting of arctic ice has made questions of the exploitation of its natural resources and potential routes of trade has made questions of the ownership of the Arctic ocean–the mapping of the territorial rights to the seas–increasingly pressing, as some 14 million square kilometers of Arctic Ocean have emerged not only as open for exploration, but as covering what has been estimated as 13% or more of total reserves of oil remaining to be discovered world wide.
While it seemed unrelated to the ice melting from nearby roofs, or large puddles on the streets of Ottawa, conflicting and contested territorial claims that have recolored most maps of the Arctic so that its sectors recall the geopolitical boardgame RISK, that wonderful material artifact of the late Cold War. Rather than map the icy topography of the region as a suitably frosty blue, as Rand McNally would long have it, we now see contested sectors of the polar regions whose borderlands lie along the Lomonosov Ridge (which runs across the true pole itself). The division of the pole so that it looks like post-war Berlin is an inevitable outcome of the fact that the arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, resulting in the opening of an area that was for so long rarely mapped, and almost always colored white with shades of picturesque light blue to suggest its iciness.
The lands newly revealed in the northern climes have however led territorial claims of sovereignty to be staked by a four-color scheme of mapping. The uncovering of arctic lands–in addition to new technologies for underwater oil extraction and sensing–have complicated the existing maps of ocean waters premised upon expanding existing territorial waters an additional 278 kilometers beyond what can be proven to be an extension of a landmasses’ continental shelf–expanding since 1984 the rights to Arctic waters of the United States, Denmark, and Canada, according to consent to the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Convention (UNICLOS) which sought to stabilize on scientific grounds competing claims to arctic sovereignty.
The issues have grown in complex ways as the melting of Arctic ice has so dramatically expanded in recent years, exposing new lands to territorial claims that can be newly staked on a map that unfortunately seems more and more to resemble the surface of a board games. Even more than revealing areas that were historically not clearly mapped for centuries, the melting of the polar cap’s ice in the early twenty-first century has precipitated access to the untapped oil and gas reserves—one eight of global supplies—and the attendant promise of economic gains. Due to the extreme rapidity with which polar temperatures have recently risen in particular, the promises of economic extraction have given new urgency to mapping the poles and the ownership of what holes will be drilled there for oil exploration: instead of being open to definition by the allegedly benevolent forces of the free market, the carving up of the arctic territories and disputes over who “owns” the North Pole are the nature follow-through of a calculus of national interests. The recent opening up of new possibilities of cross-arctic trade that didn’t involve harnessed Alaskan Huskies drawing dog sleds. But the decline in the ice-cover of the arctic, as it was measured several years ago, already by 2011 had opened trade routes like the Northwest Passage that were long figures of explorers’ spatial imaginaries, but are all of a sudden being redrawn on maps that raise prospects of new commercial routes. New regions assume names long considered but the figments of the overly active imaginations of early modern European arctic explorers and navigators in search of the discovery of sea routes to reach the Far East.
On the one hand, these maps are the end-product of the merchant-marine wish-fulfillment of the eighteenth-century wishful mapping of the French Admiral Bartholomew de Fonte, whose maps promised that he had personally discovered several possible courses of overcoming a trade-deficit caused by British domination of the Atlantic waters, allowing easy access to the South Seas. The imagination of such routes proliferated in a set of hopeful geographies of trade which weren’t there in the late eighteenth century, of which de Fonte’s General Map of the Discoveries is an elegant mixture of fact and fiction, and imagined polar nautical expeditions of a fairly creative sort, presenting illusory open pathways as new discoveries to an audience easily persuaded by mapping pathways ocean travel, even if impassable, and eager to expand opportunities for trade by staking early areas of nautical sovereignty to promise the potential navigational itineraries from Hudson Bay or across the Tartarian nation of the polar pygmies:
Open-ended geographies of land-masses were given greater credibility by the dotted lines of nautical itineraries from a West Sea above California to Kamchatka, a peninsula now best-known to practiced players of the board-game RISK:
As well as imagine the increase potential shipping routes that can speed existing pathways of globalization, in fact, the meteorological phenomenon of global warming has also brought a global swarming to annex parts of the pole in confrontational strategies reminiscent of the Cold War that tear a page out of the maps, which give a similar prominence to Kamchatka, of the board game ‘RISK!’ Will their growth lead to the naming of regions that we might be tempted to codify in a similarly creatively improvised manner–even though the polar cap was not itself ever included in the imaginative maps made for successive iterations of the popular game of global domination made for generations of American boys–and indeed provided a basis for a subconscious naturalization of the Cold War–even while rooting it in the age of discoveries and large, long antiquated sailing ships, for the benefit of boys.
Following versions took a less clearly vectorized approach, imagining a new constellation of states, but also, for the first time, including animals, and updating those schooners to one sleeker ship!
The more updated current gameboard is curiously more attentive to the globe’s shorelines, as if foregrounding their new sense of threatened in-between areas, on some subconscious areas, that are increasingly prone to flooding, and less inviolable, but also suggesting an increasingly sectorized world of geopolitics, less rooted in individual. nation-states..
Will future editions expand to include the poles as well, before they melt in entirety, as the ways that they become contested among countries percolate in the popular imagination?
We must await to see what future shorelines codified in the special ‘Global Warming Edition’ of RISK–in addition to those many already in existence in the gaming marketplace.
If the game boards suggest Christmas activities of time past, the ongoing present-day game of polar domination seems to be leading to an interesting combination of piece-moving and remapping with less coordinated actions on the parts of its players. We saw it first with Russia’s sending the Mir up to the North, which precipitated how Norway claimed territoriality of a sizable chunk of Arctic waters around the island of Svalbard; then Denmark on December 15 restocked its own claims, no doubt with a bit of jealousy for Norwegian and Swedish oil drilling, to controlling some 900,000 square kilometers of arctic ocean north of Greenland, arguing that they in fact belong to its sovereign territories, and that geology reveals the roots of the so-called Lomonosov Ridge itself as an appendage of Greenland–itself a semi-autonomous region of Denmark, upping up the ante its claims to the pole.
While the Russians were happy to know that their flag was strategically but not so prominently placed deep, deep underwater in the seabed below the poles, the problem of defining the territorial waters of the fast-melting poles upped the ante for increasing cartographical creativity. Recognized limits of 200 nautical miles defines the territorial waters where economic claims can be made, but the melting of much of the Arctic Ocean lays outside the claims of Canada (although it, too, hopes to stake sovereignty to a considerable part of the polar continental shelf), by extending sovereign claims northward from current jurisdictional limits to divide the mineral wealth. Were the Lomosonov Ridge–which isn’t moving, and lies above Greenland–to become a new frontier of the Russian state, Russian territory would come to include the pole itself.
The actual lines of territorial division aside, the diversity of names of the single region indicate the competing claims of sovereignty that exist, as if a historical palimpsest, within an actual map of the polar region: from the Amundsen Basin lies beside the Makarov Basin, the Yermak Plateau beside the Lena Trough and Barents Plain, suggesting the multiple claims of naming and possession as one approached the North Pole, without even mentioning Franz Josef Land.
While the free market isn’t able to create an exactly equanimous or impartial division of land-claims, the new levels of Denmark’s irrational exuberance over mineral wealth led the country to advance new claims for owning the north pole, and oil-rich Norway eager to assert its rights to at least a sixth of the polar cap, given its continued hold on the definition of the northern lands. The increasing claims on proprietary rights of polar ownership among nations has lead international bodies such as the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Seas (UNICLOS) to hope to codify the area peaceably by shared legal accords–presumably before the ice-cover all melts.
The maps of speculation of the “Arctic Land Grab” is economically driven and suggests an extension of offshore speculation for oil and gas that has long roots, but which never imagined that these claims would be able to be so readily concretized in terms of a territorial map as the melting of the ice cap now suggests. But as technical maps of prospecting are converted into maps with explicit territorial claims, planned or lain lines of pipe are erased, and the regions newly incorporated as sites of territoriality in ways that earlier cartographers would never have ventured.
The existence of laid or planned pipeline by which to pump and stream oil across much of Upper Canada from the Chukchi Sea, North Slope, and MacKenzie Delta have long been planned by Canadians. Similarly, the Russian government, echoing earlier claims of Russian stars to straddle the European and Asian continents, have claimed the underwater Lomosonov Ridge as part of the country’s continental shelf, even if it lies outside the offshore Exclusive Economic Zone, as is permitted by UNICLOS–so long as the edge of the shelf is defined.
Canada has taken the liberty to remap its own territory this April, in ways that seem to up the ante in claims to arctic sovereignty. In updating the existing map of 2006 to make it appear more ice exists in the Arctic than it had in the past, the Atlas of Canada Reference Map seems to augment its own sovereign claims to a region in ways clothed in objectivity: even as arctic ice-cover undeniably rapidly melts in a decades-long trend, the ice-cover in the region is greatly expanded in this map, in comparison to that of 2006, and the northern parts of Canada are given a polemic prominence in subtle ways by the use of a Lambert conformal conic projection and a greatly expanded use of aboriginal toponymy to identify lands that even belong to different sovereignty–as Greenland, here Kalaalit Nunaat–in terms that link them to indigenous Canadians, and by extension to the nation. Both tools of mapping appear to naturalize Canadian claims to the Arctic in a not so subtle fashion. Moreover, the map stakes out exclusive economic zones around Arctic regions: even as the Arctic rapidly melts, for example, disputed islands near Greenland, like Hans Island, are shown clearly as lying in Canadian waters.
Perhaps what exists on paper trumps reality, creating an authoritative image of an expanded Arctic–a white plume that expands the amount of Arctic ice beyond the rendering of the Arctic Sea in its earlier if now outdated predecessor.
It is instructive to look backwards, to grasp the earlier strategic sense invested in the Kamchatka Sea, before it migrated into Risk! The earlier pre-fifty-states rendering of this Russian area as an independent sea, fed by the Kamchatka River, was seen as an area apart from the Pacific, bound by the archipelagos of a future Alaska that were imagined to bound the region, as if to create an oceanic theater of entirely Russian dominance, above the “eastern ocean” of the Pacific, and almost entirely ringed by what must have seemed to have been essentially Russian lands.
The above map has, of course, nary a reference to a pole, but an expanded sea remaining fully open to navigation with charts.
What exists on paper, once officially sanctioned, seems to stand as if it will continue to trump the rapidly shrinking extent of arctic ice. The map trumps reality by blinding the viewer, ostrich-like fashion, or keeping their head deeply buried in the proverbial sand. The decision to show the thirty-year median of sea-ice extent in September in the years between 1981 to 2010 brings the map into line with the way that Environment Canada computes sea-ice extent. And the augmentation of Inuit toponymy for regions near the Arctic recognizes the indigenous role in shaping Canada’s toponym. But it would be hard to say that either would be advanced if they did not have the effect of expanding Canadian sovereignty to the arctic. The reality it maps clearly mirrors the shifting interests of the state at a time of the shrinking of Arctic ice due to climate change, more closely than it shows the effects of global warming on the ice-cover of the northern regions, let alone in the Arctic itself. With more maps that diminish the effects of global warming, the orienting functions of the map seem to be called into question in themselves.
What is one to make of the silkscreen prints Hong Hao assembles from digitized versions of antiquated printed world maps? While dispensing with anything like an exact correspondence to the world, each creates a fantasia of borderlands, and offers something of a wry response to the frustration at imbalances of globalization, as much as they appropriate antiquated cartographical conventions and forms. Hao’s silkscreen prints manipulate scans of older global maps, he’s argued, as a set of confines or parameters to draw the world in new ways, but in doing so deploy the conventions of mapping to empty the familiar authority of the conventions of cartography. The huge success of his production of world maps in the series Selected Scriptures, which this ambitious and eclectic printmaker began in the 1990s, but dramatically expanded after 1995, have reached a demanding public. Is there appeal how they question how we see nations as best described on a map as they make foreign–and winkingly poke fun at–the authority of the print map as a register of the nation-state or territorial boundary lines? Or does it lie in the special appeal of their static form, presented as a classical sewn binding of an encyclopedia, in an age when most of the maps we use are downloadable networked media? In an age of online and digitized maps, Hao seems careful to design the sequence of maps as situated and constructed forms, that open to the viewer in the site of a stable book.
But the maps that he produces also chart an increasingly globalized world, no longer subject to the confines of antiquated or inherited cartographical forms he creatively has appropriated, and seem to gesture to the construction of a warped world of a less clear balance of power or status quo, concealing many unseen networks of financial exchange or political relations. The introduction of corporate logos, upbeat slogans, and fractures of linguistic translation into the imaginary corpus of maps Hao has produced with astonishing invention and rapidity question not only the hold of the power of maps but the medium of mapping, by dislodging the conventions of mapping from a familiar story and by suggesting the outdated nature of narratives of bounded territories and balances of power, as well as to indicate the increasingly skewed nature of global relations. If Hao has chosen the silkscreened image to be confined by antiquated formats of mapping, unlike the screens we use to view maps on hand-held devices, his crafted silkscreens take the map as a liberatory form to reorganize global space in something of a provisory or provisional fashion for their viewers to contemplate. In ways that dispense with notions of geographic correspondence or way-finding, and adopt the conventions of mapping to undermine western narratives, Hao distances us from paper Rand McNally maps in ways as appealing as they are successful on the international art market. In appropriating Western conventions for viewing global space, Hao surely comments on the power of mapping as a symbolic form and graphic practice, if only by undermining and defamiliarizing the coherence of the map as a record of familiar territory: not only do his silkscreen prints mutate forms of mapping, by altering names, locations of countries, color-schema and mirroring continents in wry ways, but adds weird arrows, graphs, and currents mark the ties of countries and continents. Rather than confusing the surface of the map, the direction of viewers’ attention to the map seem to reveal fractures and imbalances in the globalized world, even if in ways that seem to undermine–or question–the map’s own claims to reality, by releasing the map from claims of accuracy or indeed truth-claims.
The appeal of these images among his other attempts to synthesize an eclectic variety of scaned brightly colored objects from everyday life seem quite distinct. For not only do they indulge in the translation of maps to Chinese culture (and a global art market), but they raise questions of how all maps are translations of reality in ways that are comforting in an age of the web-based map. If Hao severs the map from claims of precision or forms of way-finding, he rehabilitate antiquated structures of mapmaking, now somewhat foreign to our period eye, to orient us to the impossibility of proportional mapping in a truly disproportionate globalized world. The images Hao defines are extremely popular as a sort of response to the failure of globalization, and indeed the failure to create a new map of the modern world. The sustained return to the map as a medium seems quite unlike the numerous ways that artists have long referenced the authority–and formal objectivity–of mapping as a register of the political status quo, in how they question the vision of global unity that maps and politics that maps have so long bequeathed. For if Hao uses the palette of mapping as a clear set of constraints to in Selected Scriptures, an inventive sequence of silkscreen prints that create revisionary maps of the world’s countries, begun from 1992-95, dismantle the oppressive presence of the map in our world to question the new hybridization of map making by moving it out of a “western” art. There is a sense for many art critics of a Duchampian inspiration; each seem to announce “This Is A Map,” or maybe even “This is a New Atlas” as a ready-made form. Hao reached back to the conventions and forms of printed Rand McNally-esque mapping forms–if not an earlier cartographical sublime–appropriating the claims of novelty and reduction of information as an elegant and economic statement of truth to make an artifact that lies between found objects and the “ready-made,” even as his final products seems to satirically advertise their own cheapness and untrustworthiness as a vehicle: the translation of the format of mapping in much of these works not only undermines its authority, but suggests an impatient and persistent attempt to find meaning in the map.
Hao’s sequences of silkscreen prints chart dystopia in faux open pages of an imagined traditional thread-bound Chinese encyclopedic text–as if to create the fictionalbroader corpus of which each form part. While they do not pose as recreations of an actual experiential world, they seem to comments on the mapping of the world that have particularly pressing urgency to the material presence of the map in an age that is increasingly online. Hao’s work, including imaginary pagination from the encyclopedia of knowledge from which they ostensibly derive, register glimpses of an atlas that charts the oppressive nature of global divisions, or an imagined atlas of the social construction of space, if not of an attempt to start dialogue with a “new world order.” The prints appeal s a way of romancing the hand-made map, in an age of the web-based maps and a surfeit of digitized data, however, by recycling such foreign, if familiar, conventions of printed maps to orient the viewer to a disorienting world. In place of the data visualizations that chart the process of globalization, Hong’s recourse to screening maps to show inequalities and disparities seems by no means accidental. For Hao takes the map’s surface as a field for further manipulation: the world seems an open book, in the silkscreen prints shown below, made after the original series, and use the cartographical surface as a charged field for modification, inversion, and inscription, adopting the abilities offered by digitization to create a mock-permanence in his prints.
Take two examples. The very mutability of the medium of mapping in his work suggest not the tyranny of modern mapping, but the provisory nature with which maps translate space for their viewers, and the indiscriminate nature of how they present global inter-relations as a space that can be read in “Selected Scripture, page 1999, The Memory of Millennium” (2000). If all maps are translations, these are quizzical ones, as much as physical ones–filled with corrections, misprints, and ways of subverting their own iconic authority as maps, and glimpses of an imagined atlas of a nonexistent world.
In the first, the excavated distorted “North America Ocean” and “South America Ocean” are dotted by odd arms and insignia, their actual confines warped to create imagined lakes and emblems of airplanes and Microsoft, unlike the “Asia Ocean,” and oceans become land mass.
In the scanned maps Hong has altered and manipulated, America might be expanded, renamed as the PRC, Asia folded into obscurity save Japan, and Canada foreshortened into a swelling United States, all to upset viewers’ expectations for reading their surface, which he reiterated in “New Political Map, 2” (2000), “New Political Map, Which One” or “New World No. 1” (2000), repeatedly playing with the constraints of mapped space in ways that not only skew actual relations, but invite us to recognize the arbitrariness with which we map our mental space or are accustomed to do so.
Hong Hao was trained in printmaking, and values the medium of silkscreen prints as versatile tools not only to sort objects and create catalogue, but to treat the map as an ordering device. The series of Selected Scriptures, which are distinct from much of his work in their ostensible unity, are distinct from Hao’s interest in sequence of assemblages that are characterized as mosaics of found objects, for the maps he has invented are anything but disinterested collections of visual information or compilations of objects. Hao’s sharply observed maps are not aestheticizations, so much sharply observed post-modern satires, and comments about the recoding of information systems and the processes of the translation of information that occur in maps. In his powerful series based on the clever appropriation of older maps, the antiquated nature of the maps allows them to be treated as a new expressive field. For Hao’s Selected Scriptures (1992-2000) seems to ask us to about the role of visualizations in suggesting the global imbalances of networks of power often removed from actual terrestrial relations in an our over-mapped world, treating the map less as a totalitarian constraint or a set of fixed conventions than something like a musical piece that could be assembled, varied, and reorganized in sharply provocative ways. Hao has created skillful digital transpositions of world maps in his silkscreen on heavy wove paper, as if to recall their craftsmanship and artifice to contrast to the mechanical reproduction of serially produced maps of topical concerns. The contrast of materials of their subject and handmade production recall the power with which printed maps once assembled the lived world, in ways that masked all its inequalities and absence of proportions, working within the structure of the maps to undermine their content and reveal the very inequalities that they concealed. Hao has claimed to be especially attracted to historical maps as being “capable of inspiring ideas on what we take as common knowledge” and as “almost the most direct and most economical way to know the world.” But the economy of mapping by no means limits his variation of his range of artistic expression in this series: Selected Scriptures exploit this economy of graphic expression and its organization as an inspirational guide for playing with their formal transcription of space, redeploying the map as a new arrangement of space in works that bear such self-titled silkscreen prints as “Latest Practical World Map,” “New Political World,” or “New World Physical“–to cite the prominent English typeface in his Selected Scriptures series.
Several of Hao’s set of maps, which appear below, capture the promises of how maps make new claims to organize the world’s totality in readily legible ways that make us look at maps in new ways, alternately whimsical, quizzical and ironic look at space. In an age of online and digitized maps characterized by the near-constant mapping of financial transactions, geographic locations, and activities, Hao’s images are less about “found” maps than the rediscovery of the assembly of space from digitized images maps and varied map detritus that he wields and transfers onto his chosen medium. For he has adopted the particularly copious formal syntax of mapping, preserving the appearance of cheaply printed maps that he emulates, to ask how successfully maps might ever translate an image of our world, subtly reshaping their economy to upset their meanings–evacuating the map of any sense of wayfaring tools, but enriching its symbolic form.
1. The formats of mapping that Hao appropriates are, of course, removed by several generations from our own notion of map-use or the medium of mapping in modern life. If it is increasingly confusing how to orient oneself to an increasingly imbalanced world whose inequities have been put on display in how news media often ignores most inequities in the inhabited world–not to mention the disproportionate threats of global warming to ecosystems, regional economies, and global food supplies–Hao assembles more light-hearted–if deadly serious–maps that invites us to engage the mystifications on maps. Artists have long worked with maps. But rather than offering an aestheticization of the map’s surface, as Jasper Johns, whose re-used the familiar image of the names of states in the United States, repainted to transform a well-known image, converting familiar conventions of maps to encaustic, in an etherial blurred space of dripping paint that obscured clear lines of legal divides, and render the conventions of four-color mapping a ghostly haunting blur rather than a symbol of space–
–Hong Hao actively remakes the surface of the map as a map. And his works demand to be taken for that reason as maps, or at least as interventions in practices of mapping, rather than images that appropriate cartographical images, conventions, and signs.
Hao’s maps map, of course, a globalized space as a space into which the artist makes his own interventions, although his work is in ways resonant with Johns’ evacuation of mapping forms. For Hao’s maps re-assemble the disparities and tyranny of the globalized (over-mapped) world. The disparities within the global economy has the danger of being recapitulated, of course, in ways that he lampoons. The collective atlas that he imagines, which collectively run against the global maps we carry around in our heads, or the maps that we use to try to come to terms with unimaginably complex implications of global military constellations and warming processes. Already, in a work that predates the Selected Scriptures, Hao’s “The World Distribution of Guided Missiles” [sic] (1992), a monochrome silkscreen print replete with the mythical beasts and figures that recall the figures on medieval portolan charts for ocean travel, shocks us with the explicit charting of state secrets. It also suggests a new playful engagement of the map as a communicative form, even as he works to expand the boundaries of a map’s informational value. When he locates the bulk of guided missiles in Antarctica, the effect expands the map as a record of inhabited space, repurposing of the cartographical iconography with which he knowingly plays: in this map, the effect is oddly to diminish the appearance of the world’s size: at the close of Operation Desert Storm, of Gulf War, and the inundation of airwaves with images of US fighter jets on a sustained campaign of aerial bombing more extensive than expected, and provoked counter-attacks, Hao imagined the world as cowering from missiles poised for launch in the “World Distribution” silkscreen i seem to translate the cheaply printed paper ink map into his own image that magnified China at its approximate center. As much as translating western cartography into a new art language of classical Chinese origin, Hao seems to confront the difficulty of mapping power in this and his many subsequent silkscreen prints.
2. Hao’s work is a retrospective recreation of a cartographical sublime that reaches back to a lost medium of paper maps. The particular productivity of mapping as a new form of invention in Hao’s work from the late 1990s, suggests a particular neat coincidence of how maps speak to power, or power through maps, that interestingly mirrors the growth of online mapping: although Google Maps was only launched just less than a decade ago, in 2005, shortly afterSteve Coast created a free, editable map of the world, OpenStreetMap, based on Wikipedia, in 2004, the first online mapping service, MapQuest, If OpenStreetMap responded to the inability to freely download government-run and tax-funded projects like the Ordnance Survey in England, as these mapping projects have expanded, the epistemic remove of maps such as those that Hao uses–and the apparent chronological distance of a map created by silkscreen, but belonging to a printed encyclopedia bound as a classical Chinese book–gains new appeal as a rehabilitation of mapping as an aesthetic medium and as a tool for imagining and locating geopolitical abstractions. Unintentionally, the rise of GPS and geocaching as modes of map making, satellite imagery, digital searchability, the branding of Google Maps and the Google map viewer, and dramatic expansion of use in over one million websites of the Google’s API, have conspired to so remove the five-color map from our “period eye”, that its epistemological antiquity may be increasingly difficult to distinguish from the thread-bound classical encyclopedia Hao’s Selected Scriptures referenced. (Google’s corporate logo is absent from Selected Scriptures, but the presence of Internet Explorer and other corporate insignia suggest a need to locate the web-based map on the borders of what we once new as the world’s inhabited territories.)
For all the personalized coziness of the Google Maps Navigation, Google Street View, or My Maps, this close variant of the quite retrograde Mercator projection has perpetuated a primarily targets that Hong skewers as a frozen model of global relationships of power, which is striking for how it eerily corresponds to Hao’s “New Political World” (1995), whose evocation of the modernity of rewriting the world’s geopolitical structures is not only reminiscent of the early modern cartographers Mercator or Ortelius–the former’s “Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata” [“New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe] properly adapted for use in navigation]” of 1569 and the “Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographica tabula . . .” of 1570–but also to announce new political configuration of landmasses in relation to one another. Although Hao didn’t prominently include Google’s logo among the logos of international corporations in the sequences of maps he has designed from 1995, his work succeeds by upsetting our Westernized confidence in mapping, more than playing with cartographers’ formal conventions.
And if Ortelius prided himself on drawing national boundaries and distinguishing the world’s expanding number of continents, Hao’s silkscreen prints take pleasure in redrawing boundaries, reconfiguring the shapes of countries, and shifting and switching toponyms, as if to describe a world less defined by boundaries than the continued symbolic authority that maps have long continued to exercise. Indeed, rather than accessing or retrieving data in the format of a map, we are presented a map in the legible form of an open book and private space, even if we are invited to imagine the audience of readers for whom such a map might be mechanically reproduced.
The maps are forms of imagining a conscious redesign of the balance of power and populations that antiquated static maps once mapped. Indeed, Hao’s reassembly of the map may as a form of memory might even recall the famous translation of the Ortelian project in 1602 by Matteo Ricci, working with the astronomer, mathematician and geographerLi Zhizao (1565-1630), who engraved it, in ways that affirmed the dynamic and interactive nature of the actually static nature of a woodcut print map. (Although Hao may not reference this famous notion of cartographical translation, his appropriation of the format of world-mapping seems to intentionally reverse the trajectory of Ricci’s importation of cartographical iconography and place-names on a somewhat comparably busy and densely crowded symbolic field.)
James Ford Bell Library
Hao’s subversion of western mapping as a national political tool is often too crudely cast as reaction to the western–and American–dominance of constructing the world map, and an incorporation of traditional cartographical tools within a “Chinese” art. This is too simple, and too readily essentializes “western” and “Chinese,” and where these works of art lie in relation to map making as a craft–or how Hao’s art relates to the currency of the mash-up as a map. For Hao works with antiquated maps–indeed, making maps, rather than than only find them, to play new stories out on their surfaces–and indeed its distance from the imbalances of authority in our geopolitical world. Reading the surface of the distribution of political power in the eponymous “New Political World” (1999) in the Selected Scriptures project playfully inverts the notions of legibility to demonstrate a balance of power regularly elided: the playful projection of geopolitical values is exploited to present a new way of reading a familiar demarcation of terrestrial expanse divided by naturalized boundary lines, playing fast and freely with some of the iconography from news maps or other cartographical images.
If we love to read maps to move across space, and cross frontiers drawn in space, the shifting toponymy and place-names that we encounter in the imaginary Atlas of Hao’s device opens up a world we’re sad to read but that we can at the same time also recognize as something that the anonymous mapmaker has synthesized. Hao’s work suggests a uniquely hybrid creation, as well as a satirical relationship to the Rand McNally political atlas, which seems its primary target at first. Hao, who graduated from the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts the year of the suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square, has specialized in transposing digitized images to silkscreen prints that skew the actual geography of the world in his prints, much as they play with the reproduction of five-color maps in print culture with the format of an hand-made artist’s book, but derive from reproduced images scanned, digitally altered, and reproduced as silk screened images, linking traditional crafts, the Cultural Revolution, and modern digitized media to deconstruct and repackage (or redeploy) the map as a political statement.
The weird translation of cartographical images is part and parcel of the project, evident in the irony of the most “accurate” map in the Selected Scriptures, the “World Defenge Layouy Map” [sic] (1992), a variant based on Hao’s earlier 1992 work:
Hao’s new map of nations illuminates military power by relatives geographical sizes of nations to reflect military power, recycling the map as a metaphor. As much as it suggests a cheap reproduction, with its title seems suspiciously printed in uniformly spaced letters, the image of a “new political order” is meant to dislodge our expectations for reading a map centered on t: and on the map, although the pathways of world travel include a sailing junk, but are dominated by fighter jets among large pinyin characters that immediately strike a western viewer, and reminding us that all maps are both constructions and translations and that, indeed, the power of the map in part lies in its success in translating reality to a seamless whole. In Hao’s Scriptures, the integrity of the map is disrupted by the shifted orientation in the digitized images of names, landmasses, and pastel hues, as if to recall the mass-produced posters on cheap paper that recall Maoist times, the upbeat candy-colored pastels worthy of PAAS Easter Egg paints rather than a five-color map. They describe a scary surface of disproportionate global powers, with the PRC at their center, now straddling the Atlantic and Pacific, whose places are oddly reversed, as if one emptied a Rand McNally map of toponyms and reshuffled their location, as if to mock the faux disinterested nature of maps from the perspective of the current PRC, which finds itself somehow between the Atlantic and Pacific, in the place of North America, an expansive Israel to the North, and the United States displaced from its position of power:
Metropolitan Museum of Art
3. Artists have been making maps–or using maps to make art–since before the first printed atlas, if not since the first globe. But Hao takes the map to excavate it of meaning, and ask about the oppressive world system we have inherited, playing with the oppressiveness of that system and the almost light-hearted pastels of artificial colors (pink, yellow, orange, blue and green) we use to divide the inhabited world in printed maps to suggest that the map has little bearing on it. The odd remoteness of the historical map offers a “tool to think” that exposes the discrepancies of our mental maps of geo-bodies. Hao all but ignores the actual geographical contents that are the ostensible subject of a map: and as the project progressed, the maps he creates have an increasingly ironic organization of space. Reading the surface of the distribution of political power as referenced in the eponymous “New Political World” (1999) plays with notions of legibility that are regularly erased or elided within print maps, but seem especially pregnant with the distance of time: the playful adoption of the map’s projection of geopolitical values is exploited in Hao’s work in order to present a new way of reading a familiar demarcation of terrestrial expanse that is divided into naturalized boundary lines, playing fast and freely with some of the iconography from news maps or other cartographical images: Hao’s map of nations illuminates military power by relatives geographical sizes of nations to reflect military power, but even its title seems suspiciously printed in uniformly spaced letters: and on the map, although the pathways of world travel include a sailing junk, but are dominated by fighter jets among large pinyin characters that immediately strike a western viewer, reminding us that all maps are both constructions and translations.
The power of the map in part lies in its success in translating reality, so that the PRC now occupies where we expect the United States:
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The humorous reconfiguration of space in these maps transpose space and place with a flighty flippancy foreign to any actual land map. Why is Hong Kong now at the mouth of the Mississippi, in the place of New Orleans? The legibility of the rest of the world is almost made ridiculed, not only as the ocean off of what seem Alaska’s shores is labeled “Atlantic Ocean,” but since the region is actually Uganda, nestled beside the newly bordered Israel and Chad, creating a perverse geopolitical world that seems an absurdist collage of what might be: as the People’s Republic of China now occupies, save in Florida and parts of Norther California, most of the land that one might associate with the United States; to the north, Israel lies lazily across current Canada; London is dispatched to the South Pole; Canada is relocated to a strip of diagonal land in Eastern Africa, beside the Indian Ocean; Europe divided between Vietnam and Mozambique as if their names are dislocated from the geographic fields in which we are accustomed to find and locate them.
Hong Hao all but ignores the actual geographical contents that are the ostensible subject of a map: and as the project progressed, the maps he creates have an increasingly ironic organization of space. Many of Hao’s works trumpet their modernity in analogous, if tongue-in-cheek fashion–“The New Political World Map” (1995); “The New World Survey Map” (1995-96); “The New Geographical World,” Selected Scriptures p. 3085 (2000)–as if they offer windows on a newly registered reality to readers. Is ‘place’ less of a signifier, in the map, than the global distribution of power? The sizes of countries are ordered, not only in terms of the military and economic power of nations, but in ways that upend the semantics of the legibility of space, despite the familiar color-scheme. The result is often a fairly scary image whose totality one pays far more attention to, decoding the configuration of countries and assessing their sizes with an eye to power perhaps far more than geographic relationships, which are–witness the fighter jets–of far less import today. The clearly cultivated flimsiness of a mistranslated map, standing askew to the actual world and placing Asia at its center, pushing mirror reflections of Europe to its margins, and dispensing with America, in ways that not only skew spatial relationships but show the reproduced map as a field for staging imbalances of power.
National Gallery of Canada
“Selected Scriptures, p. 1999, The Memory of the Millennium” (2000) assembles a grab-bag of cartographical inventions around an inversion of land and water, so that oceans that connect and separate continents now seem landmasses: as if to exploit the map not only as construction, but assemblage of cultural artifacts that desperately press space into readily legible terms, Hao presses the fertility of the format of the map as a signifier into his service to new extents: emblazoned with the prominent descriptive legend “New World Physical,” the map is difficult to orient oneself to even more than his earlier work, its oceans (NORTH AMERICAN OCEAN; AFRICA OCEAN; EUROPE OCEAN) erase landmasses, as if to repurpose this most conservative of media so that where once lay land, oceans are overburdened with objects. Weird graphs erase any familiar promise of the legibility of mapped space. The didactic iconography of educational maps becomes a repository for graphs, varied iconographic detritus from warships and the logo of internet explorer:
The playful array of translations in the map–both translations among mechanical processes of reproduction, and contexts for viewing maps, as well as translations of map-signs, conventions, and toponymy–play with the “novelty” of the map and its antiquated medium to make a new material object for readership. By using a base-map, scanned from a four-color map of Westernized derivation that seems printed on foolscap typical of the posters of the Cultural Revolution, which Hao cast in the form of a traditional hand-made book in a set of individual silkscreens, as if it belonged to a corpus of lost maps in the Chinese tradition, rather than informed by Western cartography. We are a far cry from the Eurocentric “Map Translator” functions, if the adherence to a cartographical structure and the color-scheme is oddly familiar: Hao takes the the levels of translation, indeed, in a much more playful and wryly sarcastic direction that exploits the almost generative fertility of the proliferation of meanings in mapping forms, that consciously reveals the power of mapping forms that are left as a neutral backdrop in the image that uses the Google Translate API. To be sure, unlike the Google API, the maps Hao crafts, if in their collective dizzy the viewer in percussive ways, rather than retrieve or access data, present a fixed tableaux.
Some of the other imagined pages Hao designed from Essential Scriptures of 1995, as “Latest Practical World Map,” manipulate and lampoon the sense of practicality of a map, even as they introduce emblems of consumerism as much as militarism within the map the maps themselves, in ways that play with their surfaces by renaming continents so that countries, continents, and cities are no longer recognizable, hydrography abstractly symbolized and an eery globalism illustrated in the surface of the map itself–and slogans such as “Be satisfied” or “Be careful” will later give way to those of free market neo-conservatism, from “Control, gain, own, exploit” to “Fame and fortune: you can have both”: these maps have been compared suggestively to a traditional Chinese landscape in which the manipulation of the conventions of landscape become a register for a subjective state of mind, although in Hao manipulates conventions takes aim at their ostensible objectivity, and indeed the images of globalism they present: the conceptions let silent in the map are used as commentaries on mapping practices, or on the concepts of globalism. Or, the map becomes a surface for an almost random generator of slogans and injunctions–“BE SATISFIED,” “BE LONELY,” “BE CAREFOL,” “DON’T BELIEVE,” “BE LONELY”–that suggest the alienation of its viewers. Whatever constitutes the practicality of a map, the combination of odd translations, even odder graphs, juxtapositions of slogans and generic injunctions uses the historical remove of the map-as-image and inscribed surface to puncture its utility and authority, and point up some of the odd ways of reading truth into maps.
4. What, indeed, constitutes practicality in a map, and how is the translation of the world to “practical” terms defined? Practicality suggests that it offers ease of ready consultation by readers, but we find a surplus of significations that mimic many maps in their almost distracting quality. Many of the slogans that are on the map–“NO RELEAE IS TERMITED OTHERWISE WILL BE–subvert any sort of reading for sense. Indeed, Hao’s intentional layering of odd translations (BE CAREFOL), odd graphs, juxtapositions of slogans and generic injunctions uses the historical quality of the map-as-image to puncture the very notion of utility, and point up some of the odd ways of reading truth into maps.
Hao’s “New World Survey Map” engages playfully with the ways maps symbolize the proportionality of space in powerful ways, reduced Asia, as it magnifies Japan, but shows the globe wonderfully distorted with the magnification of Europe and America, in a playful accentuation of the disproportionate distribution of weapons and political influence. Or is this the image of the political order that the West–or an exaggerated and hugely magnified Europe and [North] America and Japan–purports to create and legitimize at such political organs as the UN Security Council? In the below map, the “legend” is of little help, but the map says enough, shrinking oceanic expanse and magnifying countries that are bloated in the disproportionate attention that they receive from news channels, or in international political bodies, as if to render a map based on their prominence in a world historical record or online news-sources:
This utterly “othered” “New World Survey Map” (1995) punctures the hegemony of the map, and stubbornly it refuses to relinquish the truth-claims of a map: if the westernized cartographical tradition to diminish all Asia save the Japanese, which it so greatly magnifies.
5. The invention of re-inscribing the cartographical surface in these silkscreen prints provided Hao with a particularly rich vein of production among his varied projects, and one that met a large audience. “New World No. 1” (2000), Selected Scriptures, p. 2001, contracts the known world to a scary picture of three imagined continents or landmasses, surrounded by warships, arms, and satellites that suggest their military might: where the Typus Orbis Terrarum is a contraction of Eurasia and the United States, who bracket the vastly expanded island of Japan, improbably raised to the status of a Superpower among them, and only a hint of Antarctica to the south. America is emblazoned by iconic “lounging ladies” between Las Vegas and Texas, this map is emblazoned by the odd emblems of progress from the ancient Skylab to Internet Explorer, as if this “New World No 1″‘s order were antiquated already, its seas haunted by blueprints of jet fighters or warships, inhabited surface surrounded by satellites circulating its perimeter, as if floating in outer space.
The image of a new book of world history and global powers is particularly powerful, not only for disturbing the mapping of a stable geopolitical orders that maps perpetuate, in a sort of inversion of the Peters’ projection disturbed our preconceptions for seeing the world as imitating or mirroring a political order, but inviting us as viewers to make and remake the maps that perpetuate political orders and biases in our minds, and how the an atlas for a disproportionately under-represented world might be renegotiated by its readers. The reproduction of these cartographical orders of representing global powers becomes a sustaining theme in Hao’s work, so infinite and unending is the variety of silkscreen maps that he produced, almost haunting by the disproportionate images of the world and by maps as the flimsiest of representations that continued to be accorded a significant weight for so long: the map is lampooned as a reproduction, albeit one with deep westernized connotations of arrogating claims for totality to itself, while presenting a diminished image of what it purports to map. Indeed, the flimsiness of its reproducibility is evident in the difficulties of its translation, laden with “corrections” and odd graphs seem to record the map’s remove from the viewer, lampoon the tyranny of its own absurd assertions.
6. Hong Hao is by no means alone in questioning the inheritance of mapping forms. His work is evocative of Ai Wei Wei’s interest in the hybridization of Western commercial logos and ‘traditional’ art forms, apparent in his powerful statement of the naturalization of his “Map of China,” (中国地图) (2006). Ai Wei Wei’s work that might be said to literally translate a map of the frontiers of China into the stolidity of a classically Chinese material–wood of Qing dynasty temples–that might be verging on sacrilege. The “map” suggests the consolidation of the official map of China from fragments of the past, as much as a terrifying isolationism, unlike Hong Hao’s odd global refigurations. Yet Wei is far less interested in the symbolic conventions and legibility of the map than what might be called its iconic form–even if his work indulges in some of the same questions of the synthesis of old materials and practices with modern symbolic forms, and the translation of maps to new media.
Yet rather than present the “fantastic and absurd” world “governed by violence and greed,” Ai’s art-map forces us to find the map in and that is refigured from it, even as it asserts the isolation and frontiers of the unit of the Peoples’ Republic of China, as if a continuous tree trunk. In translating actual geographic frontiers to something that looks like it emerged from a 3D printer more than a map, Ai Wei Wei invites viewers to linger over the shifts in shading on its face, even as it distances the map as powerful construction, emptying the stale medium of the map of its stale symbolic authority by translating it to another medium: in the above, the PRC is fashioned out of Qing dynasty wood; the below, out of recycled cartographical imagery.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Both images ask what sorts of opaque surfaces, rather than mirrors, something like a map creates. But perhaps the playful irony of distancing any of the positive associations–if any still remain–from globalism in a more engaging view of the legible conventions of a bounded map, Wei comments on the fetishization of the form of the map and its delineation of naturalized frontiers. Hong Hao’s work seems more engaging, and more familiar, because it speaks more incessantly to our own habits of reading of maps, and the increased business of the making of the map’s surface as a format that increasingly unceasingly begs to be read and re-read. Hao returns us, with comfort as well as to produce considerable unease, to the reading of the map’s surface, making fun of its transparency and referentiality at a time when online maps dispense with claims for transparency or signification that now seem to be artifacts of letterpress typesetting or print. Hao’s maps recall objects of serial production–and he indeed seems to be serially producing such artifacts for an eager art market–in ways that recall habits and formats of reading space that are in many ways no longer accessible or familiar, but which register the difficulty of the possibility of undertaking an ethical mapping of the inhabited world. Not connected, and not networked, Hao’s almost serially reproduced maps gesture to the translation of the authority of the static map from another time. Rather than offer images delivered by the screen or accessed remotely, even if he does not think so, Hao’s maps translate back to western eyes as cartographical eye candy and comfort food.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!