World Index was kindly made possible through funding from the Australia Council of the Arts, and the support of the Royal Geographic Society of South Australia.
World Index: exposing the tangled webs of power and propaganda.
From the very outset, World Index sets one’s internal compass to a state of heightened alert. Carrying within its title the seeds of an indictment, the exhibition points towards the hubris and webs of power involved in indexing, mapping, and charting the world.
In its original Latin incarnation, the word ‘index’ referred to a forefinger – the finger that is raised to indicate, to point towards, to point out. Acting like informants, the indexes we use today similarly provide information that leads readers to precise points. They may point to, for example, all the pages in a book containing a reference to spiders. Or as is the case in the world indexes referenced in the show’s title, they may take the form of maps that delineate places of peace, conflict or freedom of speech.
Yet who decides where a boundary will be drawn on a continent comprised of ethnic and tribal affiliations that spill over the borders of nation states? Who enforces those boundaries? And whose interests are served when a world index is created? World Index reminds us that mapping the world today involves the weaving of myriad tangled webs.
The motif of pre-eminent weaver, Arachne, features strongly in World Index. According to ancient Greek mythology, she was able to produce the most strikingly life-like tapestries. So great was her talent she rivaled the gods. Her story is usually associated with warnings against mortal pride. Yet her story should also be considered for the subversion and satire that sits at its core. Arachne became famous for tapestries that depicted the gods behaving badly. Enraged by Arachne’s indictment of the god’s hypocrisy and her excessive pride, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and crafts) turned her into a spider as punishment for her transgressions.
In World Index, Arachne is activated as a motif of satirical subversion. She draws our attention towards the acts of hubris involved in making and bearing arms. After all, what is more of an act of hubris than the act of taking another person’s life? Surely this is something that should be left up to Death and the Fates to decide. Sloan and McLean present sculptures of spiders that carry weapons on their abdomens and in doing so pose a doubly lethal proposition, for within the spider there is already venom. Produced using the new medium of 3D printing, these sculptures also sit within a wider conversation about the medium’s capacity to produce weapons.
Similarly, the acts of taking and mapping another people’s land can be seen as a presumptuous act of unchecked hubris. Through the deployment of the metaphor of Arachne in conjunction with cartography, World Index registers the hubris of colonization and the associated act of map-making as problematic endeavours.
Towards the end of the age of empire, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, growing tensions were recognized, recorded, and satirized in maps. Frederic Roses’s anthromorphic and zoomorphic satirical maps, such as Angling in Troubled Waters (1899), presented the volatility in Europe following the Crimean War. Much like Arachne’s tapestries, satirical maps informed, shocked, and entertained. Rose presents the nations of Europe fishing, a metaphor for their various approaches to acquiring colonial territories and riches.
The fishing rods and strings that appear in Roses’s Angling in Troubled Waters (1899) are recalled in Sloan’s large-scale painting where a puppet master’s hands loom over a scrambled map of the world. In the satirical tradition the puppet master’s strings lie limp, showing a dysfunctional state of world affairs. The device also calls to mind a mechanism used in ancient Greek theatre - the deus ex machina, or ‘god from the machine.’ Used to bring actors playing gods down onto the stage to resolve problems, the deus ex machina came to be frowned upon as an untenable and undesirable device and was shunned in favour of logical, internally plausible plot devices to resolve dramatic problems. Here the puppet master’s hands, that also invoke the hands of the gods, are rendered ineffective – their strings lacking tension, traction and connection. Are we, then, being implored to re-examine the very act of mapping and indexing as an impotent, defunct tool?
World Index calls into question and systematically interrogates the very notion of the index as a categorical, clarifying tool. The technique of colour coding as a means of organizing and presenting information is adopted and subtly subverted in Sloan’s large-scale gouache paintings. The restricted palate of colours hail from a variety of sources, all with their own colour codes: Pew Research Centre’s Social Hostilities Index (2012), the Institute for Economics & Peace’s Global Terrorism Index (2012), and Reporters Sans Frontiers’ World Press Freedom Index (2014). Spectrums - ranging from white, through yellow, orange and red to black (World Press Freedom Index), from white through blue to crimson (Global Terrorism Index), and from light yellow through peach to dark orange (Social Hostilities Index) - register a variety of conditions across the globe.
In one of Sloan’s large-scale paintings a large spider sits atop a map of the world. Countries are criss-crossed and enmeshed by the spider’s web and highlighted in different colours, in the manner of world indexes. Yet no legend or key is supplied for the viewer to make sense of the colour code. Confused? That is exactly World Index’s point. This index, which is a collage-like combination of the aforementioned different indexes, resists interpretation and in doing so draws our attention to the overarching issues of how these sets of data are subject to distortion, manipulation, and confusion. After all, data is power. That which could be a useful tool to aid in classification can become subject to assertions of power and used to create narratives of fear.
World Index presents an eloquent case, both exposing and problematizing the processes and motives that drive mapping and indexing. From the seeds of indictment sown in its title, to the deft deployment of satirical signifiers, the exhibition calls for reconsideration of these tools of power and propaganda.
Source: Jenna McKenzie. 'World Index: exposing the tangled webs of power and propaganda.' 2014.