"Hic sunt dracones" is a medieval Latin phrase translating to ‘here be dragons’. Early cartographers would place this phrase over areas of their maps that were blank. These were places that were unexplored or literally unknown. There might have been some suspicion that strange beasts lurked there, but really it was more about the lack of knowledge. They knew something was there but had no idea what, so dragons were as good a guess as anything. In the modern world we have no room for dragons, no place for blank spaces on maps. Technology bring us a sense that everywhere is mapped, and available to us. GPS technology in cars, computers and smart phones insures that we always know where we are and where 'where' is.
This kind of technology is increasingly ubiquitous, yet strangely invisible. It is a magical force that surrounds us, supported by an infrastructure that we never see. I am interested in examining that ubiquity and disrupting that invisibility, and also in the questions of how modern technological cartography reflects contemporary geopolitics.
This show brings together a group of works that all look at the different ways in which the world is examined and mapped and explored. The works operate at a variety of scales, and in a space between sculpture and architecture, and between abstraction and narrative. The centre of the show is a series of wall and floor based works based on the competing GPS-like navigation satellites operated by the USA, the EU, Russia and China. It is questionable whether the world really needs all of these essentially redundant systems. However, much as the empires of old could establish their dominion through the extent and accuracy of their maps, these modern empires need to control modern digital cartography to the same degree.
These pieces focus on the distinctive front panels of these satellites, rendering them at full scale but in a variety of media and configurations. The EU's Galileo satellite is a wall work, constructed from waxed plywood, that focuses on the repetitive abstraction of its 72 circular antennas. Russia's new Glonass satellite is also wall hung, but is constructed from glossy white aluminium panel. It is somewhere between an altarpiece and a constructivist mask. The USA's Navstar GPS satellite takes this architectural connection even further, with the plywood piece presented on a tabletop. The various antennas and receptors become towers and buildings, and in the space in between these we see small white figures interacting with each other and their environment.
These figures are found in a number of works in the show, and do a couple of things. They perform a switch on the scale of the objects, transforming them from actual size to miniature and back. They also add a layer of narrative to the works, converting them from mechanistic objects to spaces. The world of the Navstar satellite is particularly extensive and complex, and on it we see many figures reminding us of the diversity of people that exist within the cities that these satellites map.
Standing near the GPS satellite city is another object that appears to be a scale model of some sort of observation tower. Within its walls and platform we again see the little figures, this time primarily watching, looking across at the other works perhaps. This strange tower is actually a 1:1 plywood reproduction of the Google "streetview" camera apparatus that is used to capture the photos of places that Google serves up to us as part of its mapping service. This provides an apposite, privatised and corporate mirror to the massive governmental undertakings that the GPS satellites represent. It reminds us of the way that much as the great world empires have succeeded, other, giant corporate empires are rising, and they too define their ubiquity through mapping.
A series of smaller sculptural works explore other tangents to the arcs of these ideas. There are small plywood sculptures that resemble classical temples but that turn out to be the 'black box' flight recorders that allow us to track the fate of airplane disasters. On these objects we see the small figures again, acting out the sorts of interactions that are both poignant and banal. While I was making these works, the hunt for MH370 was at its height, and I was struck at the energy that was invested in recovering these objects. They could never bring back the dead, or reduce the tragedy of a death resulting from such an ordinary activity, but it could help us to know what had happened. We live in a world where the idea that there might be something we don’t know is both disturbing and unacceptable.
There are also a set of small wax and pewter sculptures of the massive smoke plumes that sit beneath the satellite launching rockets. The sculptures are the result of a program that I wrote to algorithmically generate the smoke particles and transform those into the solid objects using the 3D printer that I built from a kit. The objects themselves are strange and voluptuous, reminiscent of both physics and geology. These is something both monumental and insubstantial about these clouds of smoke. They dwarf the rockets that create them, and in my work the rockets are entirely absent. They are clouds, but contained and controlled and directed; pillars upon which our ascents of the heavens rest. For me, these sculptures are marquettes for monuments to the contradictory impulse of space flight.
In all of these works, we see society's desire to eliminate any dragons from modern, digital maps. There is the promise of no blank space, no unmapped terrain where dragons might lurk. Yet for all our GPS satellites and 'streetview' tourism, the black box fight recorders and deep sea submarines remind us that the dragons will not disappear that easily. When we lose something, it is still not so easy to find. And within our cities, our experiences are still not just defined by our interactions the static fabric of the buildings but by the shifting unmappable flows of people the move through them.