Short Takes

Recording the Truth in Iran is a monument to Kaveh Golestan, the distinguished Iranian photojournalist, who died in 2003 after stepping on a land mine in Iraq. Golestan, who mentored a generation of Iranian photographers, was most active in the years during and following the Iranian Revolution, and his tremendous body of work seems to have had a distinctly heroic agenda: to bring harsh social realities to light, no matter how unsightly. This book — the most significant to date on Golestan’s life and times — especially privileges his work on workers, the mentally ill, prostitutes, and revolutionaries. Writes Maziar Bahari in the preface, “Journalism in Iran is a cat-and-mouse game, and Kaveh mastered the art of dodging the cat.”

Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers
Kobena Mercer, Editor
MIT Press, English, March 2007

What challenges does migration pose to a Eurocentric history of modernism? Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, the fourth in London-based scholar Kobena Mercer’s series Annotating Art’s Histories, looks to the “hybridity, contingency, and diversity” of exile and diaspora communities to problematize the prevailing modernist narrative of Enlightenment rationality. Earlier texts in the series “opened” abstraction and pop art by looking to their dynamic, pluralistic production and reception across cultures. Steven Mansbach’s “The Artifice of Modern(ist) Art History” is the link here; though by no means the first essay to confront the ideological underpinnings of modernist purity, Mansbach’s examination of the postwar reception of the Bauhaus historicizes the institutional powers, particularly Alfred H Barr’s MoMA, that canonized the story of modern art. Mercer’s archaeology looks to divest modernity of Eurocentric provenance: hence Ikem Stanley Okoye’s study of twentieth-century Nigerian architect James Onwudinjo, whose deployment of vernacular materials brokered a modernism stripped of naive utopianism. The final essay, Jean Fisher’s “Diaspora, Trauma, and the Politics of Remembrance,” recasts the relationship of the personal to the political, locating communal identity in a cross-cultural matrix of trauma.

I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me
By Trevor Paglen
Melville House, English, 2008

Since the Civil War, the US military has produced thousands of decorative patches to identify its various units and activities. Curiously, as artist–geographer Trevor Paglen notes in this study of “black world” heraldry, the Pentagon has continued that tradition for programs so secretive that nothing about them is — or can be — known, apart from their patches. Iconography is abundant even where information is practically nonexistent, and Paglen adroitly decodes the available emblems to provide a window into a world that, officially, has no windows.

The patches bespeak a culture reveling in its own esoteric imagery and proud of the secrecy with which it conducts itself — “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” appears in many forms. Other credos include “A lifetime of silence,” and “NOYFB” (None of Your Fucking Business). Lightning bolts signify electronic warfare; stars reveal base locations. Cloaked wizards wielding staffs are juxtaposed with Greek letters; mythological creatures share space with swords shaped like stealth aircraft. The references are rich and varied, from The Twilight Zone to Virgil’s Aeneid, from Caligula to Sneakers.

Paglen shows how these programs represent themselves but can say little about the programs themselves. The patches are tantalizing but, ultimately, conceal more than they reveal; they are, as one disenchanted exile from “the black world” says: “Those are gang colors.”

An Atlas of Radical Cartography
Edited by Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat
The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, English, 2008

Any unmapped space might as well not exist; so runs one prevalent attitude. This is as true for the uncharted ocean floor as for the shantytowns rising daily on the outskirts of Beijing and Rio de Janeiro — both exist in the liminal zone between the known and the imagined.

An Atlas of Radical Cartography aims to dispel that attitude, along with the related notion that what is mapped exists as official cartographers have represented it. The book, which consists of ten essays and corresponding maps, takes its cue from the upturned Mercator projection in which South displaces North, turning the colonialist model of cartography on its head.

Jai Sen maps squatter settlements in Calcutta that government maps have labeled “vacant land,” laying the foundation for residents to demand their basic rights. The Institute for Applied Autonomy tracks the spread of surveillance cameras in Manhattan, providing residents with an online map of “routes of least surveillance.” Elsewhere, water use is quantified, the New York garbage-collection mafia is exposed, and the frantic movements of would-be North African immigrants are detailed. The world is not flat, the radical cartographers insist, and the myriad processes concealed by maps of that world charge to the foreground.