It is less scary to walk through a dark house when you can name the pieces of furniture you bump into. The same rationale applies to geography as a whole. The world feels safer when we can name the different parts of it. And we learn at an early age, from maps painted on playgrounds to ones un-scrolled over chalkboards, precisely how we should name the world. Traditional maps and their layers of classification leave no room for ambiguity. Longitude and latitude lines, continents, countries, states, and streets pinpoint our locations and discourage alternate interpretations of place.
Such maps excel at expressing certainties -- compass points, solid borders, precise distances. But they are less able to represent geographic instability -- blurred nationalities, eroding borders, or multiple homelands. As a result, many of us live beyond the bounds of traditional cartography. This condition and its visual representation is the subject of Geographies of the Imagination, artist and anthropologist Lydia Nakashima Degarrod's current exhibition at California College of the Arts's Oliver Art Center.
Unlike some art exhibitions that broadly interpret themes of migration or geography, Degarrod focuses on a specific migration and group of people. Nine viewing terminals are arranged in the gallery; each monitor features an interview with a Chilean immigrant who fled Pinochet's regime and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area between 1976 and 1980. I watched four of the nine videos and heard four stories that, while unique, were related. Each interview is structured into sections, "Migration," "Memories," "Identity," and "Passport."
Each story begins with an account of the political circumstances that forced the subject to leave Chile -- his or her name on a list, months in prison, the threat and reality of torture. Leaving is presented not as a decision but as an imperative that could not be questioned or regretted. The individual reasons for staying away are less urgent, slower to unfold, more confusing. "The first time I could go back, I realized I had changed," recalls Jaime. "Chile had changed. I realized I could not go back there and live." Eliana stumbles over the question of her identity. "My grandparents came to Chile from Russia ...," she says. "I'm Russian, I'm Jewish, then I was labeled as a Chilean leftist. Then I came here -- what am I now?" she asks. "I don't belong to one specific place."
These tangled allegiances are the videos' richest material, as the men and women wrestle with the knowledge they have left a home they cannot return to, a lost ideal whose existence negates the possibility of another place ever assuming that status. One of the interviews takes us outside to the hills surrounding the East Bay. Standing before a brown grass background, Hector tells us the ways California and Chile overlap, how aspects of his former home exist here. "They share the same forests, the same flowers, although with different names," he says. Vistas of Santiago are overlaid with scenes from the Oakland hills and it becomes clear that one person can live in two places simultaneously.
The exhibit also includes Degarrod's prints and collages. Hung from the ceiling above each monitor like flags, the prints use portraiture and cartographic iconography to visually represent the sense of geographic alienation shared in the videos. The comprehensive exhibit, the result of Degarrod's yearlong residency at CCA's Center for Art and Public Life, also contains a participatory component. Visitors are invited to draw their own trajectories on photocopied maps placed at the rear of the gallery.
If I have one criticism of the show, it's the chapter headings, which interrupt the flow of the video interviews by announcing themselves in large type across the screen. Besides being aesthetically disruptive, the use of such discrete categories is conceptually jarring. It seems to fly in the face of the exhibit's overall premise -- the ambiguity of and fluidity between supposedly separate entities. But such a concern is minor. Through its specificity and oral histories, this exhibit transcends typical artistic treatments of geography, becoming more than just a theoretical discussion of place or a display of maps. Ultimately, Geographies of the Imagination succeeds because its treatment of geography is not purely imaginary.
Geographies of the Imagination is on display through November 21, 2008 at the Oliver Art Center at California College of the Arts, 5212 Broadway, Oakland. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. For more information, call 510-594-3757.