Through drawing, poetry, and video, artists Clara Ianni, Noelle de la Paz, and Renee Gladman evoke the language of map-making to navigate infrastructures of violence and tenderness, rejecting the usual forms and aims of colonial cartographies.
These sentences will open at a slope in a cartography of grain and wire; something will be said that is not exactly complete and it will curve, will up, will be a monument for this page.
On road trips, I would watch my mom in the passenger seat unfolding the AAA maps they still keep in the glove compartment. She did this both before and after everyone in the car had smartphones, and before and after we purchased navigation systems with insisting voices. My parents, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia in their late thirties, always had a keen sense of direction. It was a skill inherited by my brother, but one which seemed to skip me. My sense was queer before I had those words: disorientation—even on familiar roads—was often my starting point and remains so.
These backseat memories are some of the most vivid I have of maps. Later, I would conceive my leanings as opposing the perceived logical stability of interstates and one-ways. In my poetry especially, I found myself constantly trying to locate not just myself, but also a sense of archive, of history, and of purpose. These questions of dis/location are ones that I unfold over and over in my writing and curatorial practices, and ones that I seek out in other artists. Artists, especially those also at the margins and inhabiting in between spaces, have continued to be maps for my own queer understanding of myself and the world.
Indeed, how can artists and poets evoke the language of map-making to illuminate infrastructures both of violence and tenderness? How can they reject traditional colonial cartographies both in form and aims? The practices of Clara Ianni, Noelle de la Paz, and Renee Gladman use drawing, video, and poetry to negotiate spaces and texts, pinpointing work at the intersections of class, race, and colonialism. Central is the axis of time—slowing, blurring, and expanding it in both the creation and experience of the work.
Born and based in São Paulo, Clara Ianni makes work informed by the ways labor, commuting, and maps are constructed in Brazil to reflect on the history of the country and the way its territories were formed by cartographers. As part of the 2021 New Museum triennial, Soft Water Hard Stone (curated by Margot Norton and Jamillah James), Ianni continued her series of Class Drawings — which began in 2014 with Brazilian domestic workers—focusing on the daily commutes of New Museum workers.
The works—titled Labor Drawing (New Museum) and presented in a framed grid with graphite lines jagged like a polygraph—become portraits of not just the streets, subway lines, and sidewalks surrounding the Museum, but of a particular “hybrid” moment in the pandemic where there is classed (and raced and gendered) access to conducting some work at home. The text beside the objects notes the mode and duration of the commute. They also include details like dodging the all-too-common CitiBikes, cases of extreme weather necessitating alternatives to a bike commute, and travel along the Bowery, which was first used as a Lenape footpath. Embedded in these details is the privatization of public goods by companies like Citi and Lyft (who acquired CitiBike in 2018), ever-extreme conditions under global climate catastrophe that flood stations and roads, and the geological consequences of colonialism, which are visible in both explicit and subtle ways.
In conversation with Giampaolo Bianconi for the exhibition catalog (2021), Ianni reflects on how these works utilize the New York City subway maps as “the starting point for cartography,” and how, even without explicit depiction, they “can reveal how this infrastructure produces certain dislocations and movements.” Much can be said about the failures and limitations of the transit infrastructure in New York, and in many cities. Access to affordable and reliable modes of transportation is unevenly distributed, leaving many communities with insufficient resources. Indeed, these drawings and maps are as much about how people move through space as they are about the ways they can’t. “If cartography is a form of officializing a discourse about a place and mapping the boundaries,” Ianni reflects, “it also makes the limits and determines how people should move through space.”
Labor Drawing (New Museum) also spotlights the specific realities and contradictions of Museum workers. While institutions like the New Museum tout so-called social justice values, they receive fair pushback on their working conditions and pay disparities (workers at the New Museum unionized in 2019 with a five-year contract). The work also activates a meaning of class that is pertinent to the weighted history of museums as institutions of knowledge. As such, examining pedagogy is another crucial thread in Ianni’s work. The artist describes her recent video, Night Geography (2022), as a “proposition of a learning film” drawing from those made by the United States during the Cold War about Latin America.
The Class Drawings engage the medium of drawing to consider complex histories of cartography and architecture. The series follows her 2013 work Line, which also addresses these core elements of codifying power structures. In both series, Ianni evokes these large histories and dynamics through pared-down gestures–ones imbued with a tender specificity. Each drawing fades the usual tangles of roads and landmarks and becomes a portrait of the individual, marked by a single line.
Uncontainable Topography: A Visual Process Story
Poet Noelle de la Paz also works across mediums to negotiate histories of power through alternative mapping gestures. In UNCONTAINABLE TOPOGRAPHY: A Visual Process Story (2018), de la Paz shares the process of erasing the 1903 Description of the Philippines compiled by the United States War Department. Rather than recognizing their Declaration of Independence, the United States annexed the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, resulting in the Philippine-American War (or the Philippine Insurrection) (1899-1902), which ended the year before the War Department made this document. The handbook was part of the United States’ efforts to develop “The Philippine Exhibition” for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which took place the same year as the Louisiana Purchase exhibition and included a 47-acre “living exhibit” of more than one thousand indigenous people. De la Paz uses the text from the document, including visual and written mappings of the Philippines, to create a new poem where mountains “run riot . . . are free.” Reclaiming the first chapter title of the document, TOPOGRAPHY, the artist asserts an all-caps “uncontainability”—one for the landscape and its indigenous inhabitants rather than the colonizer’s greed.
The video work presents language between slow fades. Handwritten notes in red pencil make the erasure process visible, revealing a poetics of map-making. This offers orientation to the viewer and emphasizes the work’s rejection of the single author. Shared authorship is also central to more recent writing prompts by de la Paz like The Flexible Bones of the Nested Arroyo, which lists four poetic constraints. These are expanded and upturned by footnotes, which begin with “Or, what if.” The third constraint reads: “The middle two lines of each stanza (or close variations/repetitions/self-translations) will become the first and last lines of the next stanza—like prying a stanza open to fill it with more poem.” Its corresponding footnote encourages alternative mappings. It asks, what if “a crevice sits between every line, waiting to be pried open? A different thing hiding, depending where we look. (How does it feel when we press this spot? Or, this one? Are we closer?)”
This work’s title evokes layered materials and geographies. Who do the bones belong to and how did they become flexible? What structures nest in the arid-region waters of the arroyo? Would they be noted on a map? If mapping can be seen as a tool to establish authority, de la Paz is offering counter spells that reject authority—the authority of the War Department, or of the poet dictating the rules of a prompt. The work upends the authority of the map maker and of the author to open it up to the reader and the collective, returning authority to the communities from which it was taken.
Renee Gladman’s recent book Plans for Sentences (2022) underscores the ways mapping is a form of planning. Of course, maps have been central in the planning of routes, many of which have had historical and political implementations, but also include everyday examples of road trips or commutes. Gladman’s practice considers the structure of language alongside the structure of cities, presenting “descriptions for future sentences,” while clarifying that “the plans for those sentences (i.e. their actual futures) are still the drawings.” This distinction takes me back to Ianni’s work, where the drawing and accompanying text are portraits both of past and presumably future commutes. In Figure 1, Gladman writes that “These sentences . . . will go the furthest and speak the loudest in a blurred cartography.” If colonial cartographers were speaking, their voices would be stern, singular, and authoritative. Indeed, this is the kind of language that de la Paz erases in her poems. What are the consequences of asserting a cacophony as map-making, of asserting illegibility over the audible?
I am transported again to the backseat of my parent’s car with the navigator suction-cupped on the window. I hear its electronic voice announcing a programmed cartography which sometimes revealed itself as outdated (construction here, renaming there), and the voices of my parents—my mom with the maps on her lap and my dad with his hands at the wheel—who did not know all of the streets. The ones they did know, they knew well. In these moments, they were imagining beyond authority or a singular voice, asserting new possibilities beyond the colonizer’s imagination. How might we make our plans in polysonic scribbles and meditate on our daily intimate rituals of travel to notice both the violences and resilience? How might we find our own poetry within the language of authority?
danilo machado, born in Medellín, Colombia, is a poet, curator, and critic living on occupied land. They are interested in language’s potential for revealing tenderness, erasure, and relationships to power. They are a 2020-2021 Poetry Project Emerge-Surface-Be Fellow, the Producer of Public Programs at the Brooklyn Museum, and a curator of several exhibitions, including Eligible/Illegible (co-curated with Francisco Donoso, PS122, 2023).