Stitching fragments & fractals

 by Edgar Pieterse

17 December 2018

Published in Gerhard Marx’s monograph:
Ecstatic Archive, 2019 

A condition of critical thought is then that our future be as yet unforeseeable and our past yet to be determined, and hence that at no one time can we completely know or master or plan who we are or may become. Future cities may then be said to be those invented, imagined, “constructed” relations or passageways between this unforeseen future and this indeterminate past in our being, through which we respond to the necessity, in what is happening to us, of some event—of some “actualization” in the present of a virtual future1.

This tantalizing thought is increasingly difficult to hold on to. The future looks crystal clear and it is frightening. Hard-won political and economic claims are coming unstuck as the world seems to hurtle towards a violent, exclusionary and undemocratic future. A collective dread is fueled by devastating climate change around the globe and geo-political facts bare testimony to the hold of conservative political interests on the levers of institutional change.

And it is not only environmental pressures. Presently, more than sixty percent of the labour force in Africa must eke out a livelihood in the so-called “informal economy” due to unjust international rules of trade and monetary policy causing many African economies to deindustrialize prematurely. As a result, African labour markets are leaping from agricultural employment to precarious, low-level service employment without an expansion of industrial jobs at the scale to match our demographic expansion. This trend becomes overwhelming when one has to confront the fact that in just two generations (thirty years), Africa’s labour force will treble in size. Over and above this, we are witnessing the rise of artificial intelligence with automations standing in for routine jobs, which is anticipated to become a scaled-up phenomenon within a decade.

So, are our futures really “to be determined”?

Closer to home, we are seeing the emergence of a troubling discourse around land and wealth redistribution. There is also a dangerous courting of identarian politics set against a broader societal recalcitrance to confront and address inter-generational inequality. And our biggest shame: the confounding tolerance of routine violence and abuse, especially in the domestic sphere.

It is hard to hold on to John Rajchman’s philosophical consolation when one considers these shifts in today’s political and public spheres. Even radical-sounding political parties seem to run on expediency and lies; this is of course to be expected of the mainstream middle (and right-wing) in as far as these distinctions continue to hold any water. Most civic movements are seemingly clueless about popular (not populist) desires and often mired in parochialism and petty power squabbles. The ideologically driven left are repulsed by institutional politics, essential cultural conflicts, and especially uncertainty, and therefore prefer a detached theatrical discursive repertoire that is often little more than self-referential posturing. Social media platforms amplify these tendencies.

Doubt—the lifeblood of criticality—has become an alien feeling.2

Beyond organised politics life surges on, conjuring unique fractals of place-making, becoming, desire and dread.Love is found and scorned. Beauty is appreciated and ignored. Craft is embraced and spurned. Food is enjoyed and yearned for. Music is made and dissed. Cellphones are lusted over and resuscitated. Fashion is adorned and a cruel reminder of lack. Transgression is courted and averted. Sleep is enjoyed and dreaded – for who knows who might enter in the middle of the night to exact unthinkable violence. Drugs are exchanged and cursed. Religion is practiced and discarded.

This psycho-social rhythm marks the structure of daily life, but also forms a collective being-a-people-in-formation. I suppose that the last twenty-five years in South Africa can be summarised as an act (or billions of acts) of nation building. The fiction of the post-apartheid South African nation arises out of a history that ensured a specific form of spatial power: the nation state with citizens as subjects and custodians of its legitimacy through representative democratic means. Yet, from day one, the nation state was deeply racialised and gendered which has meant that propertied white men stand in for these citizens endowed with the (legitimate) authority to decide for “all”. The conceit of the nation state and the violent exercise of imperialism go hand in hand and remains the bedrock of our unjust, broken, degraded and generative country.

At the existential core of the nation state (and the modern idea of a community of nation states) is the power to define boundaries —who is in, who is out, who is legitimate, who is not, who can be seen and who must remain invisible. These boundaries are socialised through cartographical practices of map-making. Maps hold an uncanny power and allure. Maps are grounding. They are inherently seductive, offering clarity, certainty, orientation, a beginning and an end. Maps show us where we belong, where we are standing, where we could go next, and how to get there. There is no room for uncertainty and the indeterminate. Maps are not of much use to Rajchman in his quest for “future cities” and “virtual futures.”

Perhaps our times demand a difficult form of inhabitation,requiring us to foster capacities to accept not knowing, not having the words, not possessing sufficient understanding or even a horizon line. This is a demanding, if not impossible task to achieve. This endurance requires sustenance.

The meditative drawings of Gerhard Marx offer up such nourishment. The work seems to mirror an indefinable structure of contemporary feeling and hints at embodied forms of endurance. At their core, Marx’s drawings are about courting a form of madness – nurturing vaguely understood compulsions and inventing ontologies in order to learn how to simultaneously float, slide and remain planted. The artist deploys optical trickery, especially in his Transparent Territories series, conflating the real and the surreal to engender a sense of emergence. Having poured over these artworks, and visited Marx is his studio, it is clear to me that in order for him to create these material forms there is a giving over to a demonic compulsion to cut into the (old) world and restage it as a fractal offering with endless potentialities.

The manic obsession to find just the right fragment among reams of material demands a special kind of attentiveness – by zooming in on details it is necessary to lose sight of the overall map. This conveys a capacity to open oneself up to multiple dimensions of past violence, mundane routines as well as unexpected moments of tenderness. In this practice and cartographic expression, Marx hints at a different kind of historiography; one that can be approached from a meditative point to reveal the mass of entanglements that do not yield heroic tales; just grounded accounts of complex narrative spatialities that illuminate the continuous production of home, hood, town, trajectory and hinterland. This form of engagement with our bloody past(s) engenders the possibility to glimpse alternative futures. 

However, the rational cognitive line between critique and proposition does not exist. We should resist the default temptation to decipher it and avoid becoming trapped by what we can see and interpret. We can also sense and feel other histories, futures and now-moments. It is this emotion that wells up in me when I allow myself to slide along the hypnotic red curvatures of Marx’s Calligraphy and Cartography series.

This series presents distinct sensibilities around temporalities and begs a number of vital questions: How do we learn to work with multiple archives—the recorded and the unrecorded? How do we curate and enact memorialization when we are burdened with villains, heroes and a great number of ordinary people that invariably lived entangled, contradictory lives? How best can we connect meaning, loss, identity and restoration?

Calligraphy and Cartography and Transparent Territories can be read as navigational tools. These bodies of work cultivate a strong sense of layering to intimate the palimpsestic nature of physical, economic, social and political landscapes. The physical labour involved to achieve this characteristic aspect of the drawings speaks to a slowing down of time, painstakingly, fragment by fragment, finding a way out of the labyrinth of spatial-histories. The poetics of labour embodied in these works is humbling. I was struck when Marx suggested that his process creates an opportunity for the implicated maps to agree and disagree with each another. What might happen if we allow ourselves the time to pay attention to such quarrels? How it might help us fashion different conversations about non-linear temporalities and cultural layering?

Both series revel in the possibility of discovering and capturing unforeseen geometries through a process of drawing arbitrary lines, either with movement trajectories (the red line) or hard edges. By abstracting these preexistent lines from their intended purpose and assigning a new navigational function, the original scientific intent is replaced with a discursive one – story-telling becomes a superior form of truth-telling. By destabilising the truth claims of modernist cartography the very basis of the colonial and neo-colonial institutional architecture is removed and the violence of erasure can be seen for what it is. Authoritative power is rendered visible and vulnerable with one stroke. But these works are not simply deconstructive, they are reconstructive as well. They generate elegant and elusive geometries that provoke a flickering belief that other landscapes can, and are, being fashioned.

Lastly, these bodies of work suggest a new kind of map: migrant maps. Through an incremental process, discarded and decommissioned maps are cut loose from their original purpose and allowed to migrate onto the canvass to form part of a contradictory whole. Marx speaks of this process as forging diagrammatic maps that “grow beyond logic” to form “organic geometries.” This generates “transparent territories” – non-linear landscapes replete with gaps that compels the spectator to complete the maps in their minds-eye. The blank holes suck you. You cannot help but feel the power of the lines and geometric shapes—that uncanny flip between two- and three-dimensional perspective—instilling a sense of haunting, maybe even loss.

What is also striking is that the work does not try to replace one fetish with another. The drawings not only expose the map as fetish but also render traditional cartographic representation as inherently strange and arbitrary. In this sense, they are maps of allusion instead of maps of authority. They function as epistemic opposites. Meaning is only secreted by paying attention to resonances; by puzzling over the emotions dislodged in the process of being drawn along the vectors and arcs of the narrative lines. Conventional maps serve as stock reminders of territories known, but not fully remembered; they perform an anchoring function to reconfirm position and directionality. In contradistinction, allusion maps start with resonant graphic cues but then refuses familiarity, reassurance, and instead offers disorientation, confusion, frustration, but also possibility and beauty.

Finally, the power of these works derives from what can be described as an unsentimental aesthetic. There is no hint that one should critique the political economy of conquest and pillage by providing a cartographic account as a subaltern form of mapping. Marx is interested in something more subtle and emergent: a ritualistic immersion in multiple past landscapes to stage a response that is singular, in the moment, visceral and generative of a unique rearrangement of spatial debris. This response involves the stitching together of borders and edges to fashion an ecstatic and de-territorialised (virtual) non-place. To use Rajchman’s words, the works can be read as “passageways” between temporalities and scales.     

Observers may find it frustrating that the work does not directly address the “land question” or “colonial archives” or any other decolonial political urgency for that matter. I must confess, this is precisely what I find exciting and brave about the work. It responds to an artistic impulse, not a political one but, in the process, it can offer a different kind of discourse about fundamentally insoluble scars. It is a necessary aesthetic contribution with significant philosophical implications.

In closing, these works remind us that alternative forms of cartographic power and seduction exist in this moment of the Internet in which are happy to upload every aspect of our movements, consumption, beliefs and communities. This networked time is designed to extract non-stop consumption to stoke an illusion of individuality and bespoke taste whilst it aggregates our identities into new forms of algorithmic biopower and regulation. We are all now map-makers, cartographic agents, and spatial actors but increasingly in orbits that are distinctively tribal and self-referential. There are close connections between these cultural shifts and the political maladies set out in the beginning of this essay. In this sense, these works by Marx occupy a hinge position between contested pasts and uncertain digital futures. We better find our own distinctive fragment quickly, and then hold on for dear life.

I will allow Rajchman the final words of provocation as an echo and extension of Marx’s imaginative territories:

What would it mean to use Deleuze to introduce into this situation a new sense of “construction” neither purist nor transgressive nor utopian? What would it mean thus to put into practice an experimental art of singularizing space through informal diagram geared to sometimes even quite small “virtual futures,” which deviate from things known, inserting the change of indetermination where once there existed only definite probabilities? How might we then be able to see what is yet singular or untimely in the forces of our global electronic society, with its new divisions, its geographies, its dramas of worlds not quite yet ours?5

A condition of critical thought is then that our future be as yet unforeseeable and our past yet to be determined, and hence that at no one time can we completely know or master or plan who we are or may become. Future cities may then be said to be those invented, imagined, “constructed” relations or passageways between this unforeseen future and this indeterminate past in our being, through which we respond to the necessity, in what is happening to us, of some event—of some “actualization” in the present of a virtual future1.

1 – Rajchman, J. (1998) Constructions. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, p.109.

2 – For an insightful reflection on these dynamics, see: Bergman, C. (2018) The stifling air of Rigid Radicalism. New Inquiry, 2 March, url:

3 – This is theorized and captured in: Simone, A.M. (2018) Improvised Lives. Cambridge: Polity.

4 – An account of inhabitation is offered in: Simone, A.M. and Pieterse, E. (2017) New Urban Worlds. Inhabiting Dissonant Times. Cambridge: Polity.

5 – Rajchman, J. op cit.p. 9.