The Unreliable World, about the work of Annesas Appel
The unreliable world
The Greek philosopher Anaximander believed that the earth was barrel-shaped and that the inhabited world was on its flat top. He drew the very first map of the world, which looks like a flat round button with a blue edge, the ocean. Three blue streams of water divide the world up into three almost equal parts. The map looks like the present-day logo of Mercedes Benz. In this mappa mundi, Anaximander brought together the continents that were known in the sixth century BC: Europe, Asia and Libya (a part of Africa). Anyone who has studied the history of cartography will understand how difficult it is to draw a map of the world based on experience alone.
The shape of the earth remained the subject of wild speculation for a long time. Flat or round, or an oval with pointed ends like a zeppelin. Mathematicians racked their brains as to how a round shape could be expressed on flat paper. As early as the second century, Ptolomeus folded a piece of papyrus around a conical shape, drew on it everything that he knew about the earth and then folded it flat. A map. He also introduced the meridian, and lines of longitude and latitude, and introduced a register of place names, with their coordinates. He realised that direction and distance are the essence of each and every map.
Maps and systems also obsess the visual artist Annesas Appel. She began by making a journey to the centre of the computer. Taking her notebook apart resulted in four books in which she classified all of the components according to a new system. She peels off layer after layer of the computer. In the first part (deconstruction), she copies each component accurately and gives it the same place on paper as it had in the computer. Not by hand but in Illustrator on her new notebook. The second book (decode) shows the various layers of the circuit boards. In the third book (writing system), all the components of the circuit boards dance over the paper, in arrangements like the choreography of a polka dance with a polka hop now and then: lines, surfaces, imprints, circles, dashes, rectangles, squares, miscellaneous. Book four contains the index.
In View on the World Map 04 (Entities 2013), Appel presents her version of the world map, again in book form. She looked online for a map of the world and for Views on the World Map she came across a world map from the Bosatlas (the best-selling atlas in the Netherlands), where Europe is at the centre. This is so familiar to us that we hardly realise that it is a choice; you could also take a map in which Jerusalem is the starting point, as the believers did. Or Russia. Annesas Appel follows the Western tradition, in which each person sees him or herself as the central point. On the pediment of the Royal Palace on the Dam, the four then known continents lay their native gifts at the feet of the city of Amsterdam, which holds her arms open wide to receive them.
According to the Bosatlas, there are 232 countries. Annesas Appel begins by separating each country from the whole and then she copies the provinces of that country very precisely. Next, she places all the provinces one after the other, in alphabetical order of the countries to which they belong, but she leaves out the countries themselves. The provinces of Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, the American Virgin Islands, Andorra, etc. follow each other in a long string, page after page. Each land has been given a shade of green. The green tints came into being by taking 25 colours from the atlas and making 232 colours via gradients. Sometimes the differences in the green are too small to see but fortunately the system remains clear due to the fact that she starts counting again at each new country: a new series of provinces of the next country begins at every 1.
Artists love categories, creating order, systems. ‘It is a human trait to want to organize things into categories. Inventing categories creates an illusion that there is an overriding rationale in the way that the world works.’ (Andrea Zittel) The artist adds something, for example the doubt that strikes in the midst of exact data. We are too quick to think that a map is perfectly correct, that it lies within our reach today to make a reliable ‘true’ map of the world. But we also make choices when drawing a map nowadays and every map arises from an interpretation of the facts. A three-dimensional world is still flattened and this alone always means that something does not correspond to reality. Appel’s atlases nibble away at things that are familiar, despite the facts being correct.
In the book Measuring the World, the writer Daniel Kehlmann contrasts the explorer Alexander von Humboldt with his contemporary, the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. Both are obsessed with measuring the world, one by fearlessly visiting unknown places and by testing and recording everything with a never-flagging curiosity. The other is a complaining man who hardly ever leaves his hometown and uses the abstract language of the mathematician to understand the world. Gauss runs ahead of what is known and imagines new worlds from behind his desk. Annesas Appel makes me think of Gauss, but without the bad temper. She sits bolt upright behind her computer screen in order to construct a new version of the world with the patience of a saint, a very abstract version derived from formulae that are almost incomprehensible to ordinary people. She develops systems in order to carry these out with the patience of a saint and with great precision. The repetitive action is like a meditation. Wonderful! ‘My approach is to measure everything’, says Annesas Appel. Measuring is knowing, and data are the truth. An illogical, confusing, arbitrary truth. The realisation of the power of humans, who not only divide up the world, draw borders, think up capital cities, but also propagate the absoluteness of these.
Annesas Appel shows the known world in a new formula, like the long line of provinces, page after page, in which measurement and direction are essential. This is also a way of doing it. The world as a construction shows the illusion of a truth. Our mistakes. Our smallness. Annesas makes the world more abstract, she takes a step back, in such a way that we no longer think of Zeeland with its potato fields or Friesland with cows in the meadows. Instead of this, Appel makes you realise how little grip we have on our earth. It is no coincidence that she chose a map with Europe at the centre. Each person is the point around which the earth turns. Everyone feels that his or her own family is very special, but if you walk along the street you will see that there is a family living in every house. A town full of streets, a megacity full of families. Hong Kong, Sao Paulo. Who are you really, then? The individual dissolves in the crowd; you disappear as a person, as a person with a head full of worries about trivial things. One metre, one step.
Small white cubes show the capital cities. Appel draws lines from these, a line going up, a line going down, in four directions. Washington DC gets a small white cube and crosses show where the city is located on the meridians. Thick lines are the lines of communication, like main roads between the cities, and the dotted lines are in fact the motorways that take you further away. The new scheme shows how the capital cities relate to each other, wherever they are in the world, however close to or far away from each other they are located. Parts of the world atlas become countryside and space, and we read them as an intriguing interplay of lines. Appel has carpets made of these world-street-maps, red carpets.
In View on the World Map 06 | Realignment, 2014, Appel transforms surface into lines. She places a grid around each country and then divides it up into strips, scanning the land from top to bottom. Her finger follows the mountains, the cities, the water, the inlets, and the residual space around the country. She divides it up into water and land: earth becomes green and water white. The residual space also becomes part of the line. Big, dry Australia is transformed into a continuous line with few gaps. Indonesia and the Philippines have a lot of water and there are many broken lines. Countries differ in length and structure. Appel begins with the right-hand side of the world map, with Fiji, and follows all the countries from right to left. The pages of the book read from right to left, from top to bottom. There is nothing that is reminiscent of a map; it reminds you more of a Simeon ten Holt music score. A punched card. The shape of the country: because of the rhythm, the structure that it produces. A more beautiful way of seeing the same thing.
A map is interpretation; each map is a snapshot. Annesas Appel searched the internet for an image of Japan on the world map and discovered that every map was drawn slightly differently. She laid the maps on top of each other, compared map 1 with map 2, with 3, with 4, with 5, with 6. And so on. The free space, where the maps do not correspond, is drawn. The country Japan disappeared; the mistakes remained in these remnants. Once again, it provides a perspective that not everything is as it is presented to you. The series View on the World Map Remains 07, 08, 09, 10, 11 consists of 5 separate little books.
Humans divide the world up, draw boundary lines, assign capital cities, classify and rule. Science seems to show something about the world but, equally, it creates a truth. At the time of the voyages of discovery, the user realised that the map was a suggestion, a possible picture of what the world looked like. Today, knowledge is presented with so much certainty, as if it is a truth. Appel concurs with the truth of science, she uses its facts, but then she goes further with the data, she entices people into her system. Appel interferes with the contemporary cartographer’s map. His certainty is given an abstract look. What follows is a piece of music, a dance, a new high-water mark. Doubt.
* published in June 1929, in the Belgium Surrealist magazine ‘Variétés’