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El Mapa y el Territorio | 2013-15 | In-progress « Nigel Bennet | Artist

El Mapa y el Territorio | 2013-15 | In-progress

I am fascinated by language and the difficulties of translation: not only translation between one language and another, but also the near futility of translating human experience and emotion into any communicative system, verbal, visual, or otherwise. Taking the relationship between language and perception as its main theme, and Korzybski’s famous remark that “the map is not the territory”as point of departure, this body of work examines the categorization human beings project onto the natural world by partitioning it into distinct yet arbitrary categories that we often then convince ourselves are naturally occurring. Likewise, El Mapa y el Territorio is concerned with the influence these categories exert on relations between ourselves, our environment, and the other animals we share it with.

The work borrows research techniques from the humanities and social sciences in order to investigate the vernacular classificatory systems people employ in everyday life that anthropologists refer to as ‘folk taxonomies’. It then uses this data as the basis for photographic narratives that serve as a form of ‘internal reportage’, subjectively documenting psychological, emotional and biological states rather than ineffectually striving to file neutral reports from the exterior physical world, as has traditionally been documentary photography’s purported objective.

The research stage was both quantitative and qualitative in nature, and participants were chosen arbitrarily with the goal of including as broad a range of outlooks and opinions as possible. Geographical coordinates within the greater Madrid area were generated using random number software, and the first five people encountered at each location were asked to respond to a questionnaire designed to reveal individual classificatory systems (if a person refused, another was approached until someone agreed to participate). This process was repeated a further two times, passing each wave of data gathered on to successive groups of participants to reclassify in their own manner, until I was able to create taxonomic trees plotting perceptive and psychological idiosyncrasies regarding common conceptual categories; this data formed the raw material upon which the third group of participants based their creation of the resulting series of photographs.

Human beings often encounter difficulty in communicating experience of external reality by purely linguistic means; words (or, more precisely, the concepts they refer to) are often ambiguous or vague in meaning, or seem somewhat ill-fitted and incongruous to the phenomena we wish to describe. Furthermore, if language often frustrates our attempts to represent our external world, its success in describing the emotional worlds that lie within is even more limited. These inadequacies logically become even more pronounced when shifting between languages. Adding to these limitations, many have argued that language actually creates the boundaries of what we are able to perceive. Or, put simply: if we can’t say it, we can’t see it. Nam June Paik, for example, has written that “we believe we think with or in languages, but more often languages think with us” . In recent years such Whorfian linguistic determinism (considered anachronistic for much of the past five decades), has been reappraised, with a milder version of the ‘Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis’ now central to much mainstream academic thinking on the subject. While the language(s) we learn as a child do not actually prevent us from thinking certain ideas or noticing specific entities in the world around us, it seems that language is influential in highlighting some modes of thought or inquiry over others and steering us more readily towards certain conclusions, to the extent that greater effort is required to think in an original or questioning manner and many perfectly arbitrary cultural phenomena are mistaken for natural facts.

My own research into these theories was inspired by a placard in the Museo Del Oro in Bogota, Colombia, which stated that: “Some societies taught parrots to talk, so they could sometimes use them to replace sacrifice victims. According to their thought, language had transformed these birds into humans”. For these Pre-Columbian peoples, the ability to speak was such a determining factor in deciding what was or was not human that talking birds were considered to have actually become human and were thus treated as such. This reflects the substantial variations between the concepts, entities and artifacts humans have historically considered logical or important, an observation we might do well to consider with regards to contemporary beliefs and classificatory systems. As Lakoff states:

People have many ways of making sense of things – and taxonomies of all sorts abound. Yet the idea that there is a single right taxonomy of natural things is remarkably persistent…Taxonomies, after all, divide things into kinds, and it is commonly taken for granted that there is only one correct division of the natural world into natural kinds. Since scientific theories develop out of folk theories, it is not at all surprising to find that folk criteria for the application of taxonomic models find their way into science.George Lakoff

Hence, I came into this project from the position that the map (language) and the territory (external reality) frequently do not coincide, by which I mean that language is not just the straightforward rendering of external reality into a directly analogous linguistic code, with every element of the world neatly accounted for by an equivalent semiotic unit. Indeed, chronicling the gaps where reality and language fail to meet (consider for example, such ill-defined and shifting categories of ‘bugs’, ‘weeds’, ‘dirt’ and ‘noise’ among English-speakers) was exactly my objective.

Yet, during my research, I have been persuaded that many of both the strong and mild theories of linguistic relativism mentioned above are every bit as inaccurate and fallacious as the original folk theories I set out to dispel. This is not because I underestimated the expressive powers of textual representation, but rather because the dichotomy on which my argument was based, namely that of an ‘external reality’ and our attempts to describe or embody that reality in language, is an entirely artificial one. Not only does language contribute to the creation of reality itself, but, even more significantly, it would appear that there is no external reality ‘out there’ to represent in the first place, or at least none that is truly independent of human biology and experience. Our common folk-theories posit language as a neutral reflection of the external world, but language might be better considered a “mirror of the human mind” (Leibniz, 1704, p. 152), and the reflections we glimpse in this mirror are no mere phantoms but are as real as the earth under our feet.


This project is ongoing.