Where is Where? / Ofri Cnaani

The feeling of being in many places, yet nowhere, increasingly qualifies our relations to sites. I can be in bed while at a party, in class while shopping online, touching a lover while touching the screen. It feels like the online territory and spaces between skin and screen keep stretching and widening, offering a new hybrid sensual spatiality and establishing an extended sense of being in site. If on the micro level, being a user entails being in multiple locations, then on a macro level, users’ locality is affected by geographical coordinates, computational processes, legal bounds, and conditions of labor entailed by. The challenge of thinking of ways to navigate space is entangled with the difficulty of asking the question “where?” since the answer to “where is where?” is complicated by the multiplicity of sites, often confused by a sense of sitelessness. What can we understand with our local knowledge without losing the multiple dimensions of our position? How can we think “where is where” without thinking about “orientation” and “disorientation” only as a binary?

In April 2020, during the lockdown, I was invited by the Institute for Public Presence to participate in a six-week project around the concept of virtual journeys. The proposition to focus on digital journeys emerged as a response to the new conditions of physical and social distancing and was driven by the curiosity about what can be achieved by a synthetic navigation operation that is shared by a group via digital platform. A tour, a trip, a walk, a wonder, a journey, an excursion—I quickly noticed that even defining what we are doing together was complicated by the digital medium that unfolds as numerous systems of supplementation, as well as the geographic site we explored, namely (mainly) the territories of Israel-Palestine.

We started in one locale: Jerusalem. In the ever-so-complicated reality of the Middle East, the chosen starting point of Jerusalem was a multiple gesture: it acknowledged the history of mapping the area, where Jerusalem often appeared as the center of the world, or the single point of reference for orientation. More crucially, it highlighted the notion that any cursor moving on the digital map and every mouse-click within this dense territory is a product of political disputes, social intensities, and thick layers of tensions too deep to map. It immediately made present the impossible lightness of the digital map. The organizers, Avital Barak, Michal Baror, and Udi Edelman, offered personal short navigation in Jerusalem that was driven by their own research. Toward the end of the first session, two participants were randomly picked (using an automatic generator) to lead the next two journeys. These two had to decide where the group will be heading the following week. Each leader had an hour to lead us to their chosen destination (limited to fifty kilometers from the starting point). The following week, the same chance mechanism was applied to pick the people who will continue journey A and journey B. Each of the following sessions consisted of two hour-long journeys to two selected destinations. The two journey lines occasionally intersected each other, geographically or otherwise. The journeys enmeshed fields of interest and geographies and offered techniques of relations that bridged times, abstraction, and situated experience to reach a map of possible forms, shifting from a site to a shared experience.

In its core, the invented navigation structure was an invitation to free ourselves from the need for historical “filling-in-ism,”[1] or the need to provide an overview of a topic, and a call for rejection of chronology in a way that was described by one of the participants as sourcing materials “from Jesus to the future” without any interest in marking specific events, places, or themes as “important.” The knowledge formation we crafted as a group was always partial, where bodies moved through multiple location and times: the geological time of Limestone formation, the slow time of the check point, the Zionist time of naming the flowers, digital platform time, and brain fatigue time, collecting all knowledge into inferential models. It was a topological hyperspace of moving-through.

As one path started where the others end, the collective navigation turned quickly into a speculative practice, with many of us, approaching fields of knowledge like amateurs, guided by visuals, memories, and online curiosity. A navigation route that delved into the Orientalist tourism in search of ceramic goods on the deserted road to the city of Jericho was continued by trans geographic pilgrimage back to Jerusalem, for example. Bodies were used to map a site and somatic mnemonic techniques were used for memorizing maps, a common practice in the Israeli military that has choreographic potential. Our slowly developed group system loosened its commitment to the lineage inscribed in a territory and most importantly disavowed a chosen method of moving through it. It offered a different kind of movement that is needed to keep things alive. One could say that we never wandered in the physical or geographical realities of a site, but only in its cultural products. Surely, this freed participants from the need to define what this place is. “Where am I”? was replaced by the “Where is where”? A collective ontological effort toward the politics of locality, where many storylines were constantly added, where times and places mixed and overlapped between different worldviews. It was based on a constant reorientation of the subjective, social, and environmental conditions that makes its practice of navigation a form of collective storytelling, work of myth, or fabulation.

How to come to a site that we know well without knowing it? The more we moved forward, the more the binary methods of comparing and contrasting the physical and digital spaces melted away and made room for a different kind of curiosity, the kind that is attuned to movement between layers and shared practices not yet known. The more time we shared on the journey, the more I turned my attention from what seems to be the destination or the methodology of getting there and started to wonder how the shared journey kept living through our practices and activities once we left the online room. Thus, navigation became a collection of multiple experiences and efforts that didn’t have an operative dimension in the actual navigation but provided a set of attunements, a loose system of the mutual orientation. In it, the weekly navigation structure operated more as a generator or stimulator of energy that produced a moment of communality. In parallel to what we know as individuals there was what we know together. The “us” being there is what allowed things to move, the “us” being there is what allowed navigation “from elsewhere.” When one person’s endpoint is the next participant’s departure, the notion of planning was unsettled by the event. It demanded a constant recalculation as we shifted from a location concern to a position concern. We became “we” by moving away from “where are we?” to “where is where?”

Where was my body during that process? It wasn’t a sweating body that climbed up a hill or a dreadfully exhausted body that walked in and out of a tour bus, but a body that was dragged behind my smiling face and typing fingers like an effete tail. My body lived through its sore eyes, neck pains, pulsing temples, and brain fatigue but also preserved the lived experience of once being on that hill, curving one palm to protect the eyes from the blinding sun. Such a split sense of the body and its location highlighted how the choreo-nexus of movement with/out body in the digital space can become a formulation that forced us to think with non-localizable system of multiple embodiments. I propose Embodied Partialities as a framework that embarks from new relations between skin and surface, between touch, exchange, and technological mediation, as well as between bodies navigating physical terrains. Thinking through the partiality of the “almost-touch,” this framework proposes a thread that navigates along the experiential, sensorial, and spatial knowledges toward a conceptual model of knowledge production that operates from a state of intellectual partiality. How can we think of navigation with/out a body? It demands non-chronological field of qualities that are both fluid and abstract. It goes beyond the body/digital binary toward trans-positional movement.

What was it that took place in the virtual journeys group beyond the specific destinations that were picked and anecdotes that were shared? What was produced? Such mutual work brings into common space all sort of identities, subjectivities, technologies, and temporalities that connect not only through what is shared but also through what is not shared and is not easy to capture, to get a hold of. What formed is not bracketed by an event or secured within a shared project, but rather operates through what remains in one’s imagination, linked to inquiries and projects from past and future years, creating a kind of connective tissue that keep diffracting. It offers a form of study that fizzles out the main event. In retrospect, I think about what took place as an amplification of what was already going on. It temporarily and partially brought together bodies, objects, and digital space: a layered, immeasurable form of social and technological hybrids that were both uncommon and in-common. The virtual journeys we crafted represent an invitation to get ready, to rehearse possible relationships of matter, human, and data in a strange horizon.

 

 

[1] Clare Butcher, “44 Tonnes,” Field Notes 04: Publics, Histories, Value: The Changing Stakes of Exhibitions (Hong Kong: Art Asia Archives, 2015), 13.