Nato Thompson is a curator and producer at Creative Time, a New York City-based arts organization that promotes experimental and site-specific public art. He is also the curator of "Experimental Geography," a traveling exhibition sponsored by Independent Curators International, which features an examination of the history of the Hudson River, a mobile parking booth and alternative maps, among other things. (A catalog of the show is available from Melville House; $29.95.) From February 7 to April 18, "Experimental Geography" will be at the Rochester Art Center in Minnesota. –Christine Smallwood
What is experimental geography?
Well, I stole the term from a close friend, an artist named Trevor Paglen. He has a PhD in geography from Berkeley, but he comes from an experimental art background. In general, the term "experimental geography" is a catchphrase for an emerging genre, where academic influences blend with an acute sensibility for contemporary art skill sets: visual, spatial. But at the same time, there’s rigor. Academic rigor. A real desire to know. There’s also a performance element that’s influenced by the Situationists, a kind of walking tour. Then there’s the more academic approach–people who are in fact architects.
Would you consider the project you worked on with Paul Chan in New Orleans last year–the outdoor production of Waiting for Godot–a kind of experimental geography?
Sure, absolutely. Godot happened in the Lower Ninth Ward, a very famous site, and also in a not-so-famous neighborhood called Gentilly, but both sites are laden with historical machinations, from the ecological to the racial to the urban. Those politics are right under the feet of people, producing an extraordinarily tragic and somewhat absurd play by Samuel Beckett. There’s a phrase that’s often used–"Knowledge is a performance." That is to say, you must, to some degree, seduce the reader. You bring knowledge slowly into light. What artists have always known is that ambiguity is a space of thinking. That’s what I think Beckett understood in Godot. You can’t tell anyone anything down in New Orleans. The reality is too intense and too illegible to ever make comprehensible. And it’s too pedantic to say, This is what’s wrong. The trauma is so vast. You need a project of ambiguity, where everyone brings their experience to the table. So I think the Godot project was very much in that tradition.
Would you say more about Trevor Paglen’s work?
He’s been doing the geography of places that people say don’t exist. He has taken telephoto lenses used for photographing stars and used them to photograph places like Area 51 [a support facility in Nevada for U-2 spy planes] or, more recently in Afghanistan, to photograph Bagram Air Base and the secret prisons there that, at this point, are no longer secret. Three years ago they were still a secret. He’s currently doing an art project where he’s tracking secret intelligence satellites in the night sky, using visual art tricks to make visible things meant to be invisible. It’s photographs of the night sky, but it’s all this secret stuff that’s up there. And there’s lots.